Address of Ambassador Armando Valladares, Chief of the United State’s Delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Geneva, Switzerland, February 23, 1988.
Mr. Chairman, I am not a career diplomat, and I am not an expert on the technical aspects of this organism. I will not speak in a detailed manner on the reports and topics submitted under point 10. There will be other interventions during which we will listen to opinions on those important matters.
Mr. Chairman, today I want to speak about torture, about what it means for a human being to be tortured, to be humiliated, or what may be even worse, to watch a friend, a companion, or a relative being tortured.
As many of you know, I spent twenty-two years in prison for political reasons. Perhaps, I am the only delegate in this Commission who has spent such a long time in prison, although there are several persons here who have known in their own flesh the meaning of torture. I do not care about their political ideology, and I offer to you my embrace of solidarity, from tortured to tortured.
I had many friends in prison. One of them, Roberto López Chávez, was just a kid. He went on a hunger strike to protest the abuses. The guards denied him water, Roberto lay on the floor of his punishment cell, agonizing, deliriously asking for water. water… The soldiers came in and asked him: “Do you want water?”… The they took out their members and urinated in his mouth, on his face… He died the following day. We were cellmates; when he died I felt something wither inside me.
I recall when they kept me in a punishment cell, naked, with several fractures on one leg which never received medical care; today, those bones remain jammed up together and displaced. One of the regular drills among the guards was to stand on the steel mesh ceiling and throw at my face buckets full of urine and excrement.
Mr. Chairman, I know the taste of the urine and the excrement of other men. That practice does not leave marks; marks are left by beatings with steel rods and by bayonet thrusts. My head is still covered with scars, and you can feel the cracks.
But, what can inflict more damage to human dignity, the urine, and excrements thrown all over your face or a bayonet’s blow? Which is the appropriate article for the discussion of this subject? Under which technical point does it fall? Under what batch of papers, numbers, lines, and bars should we include this trampling of human dignity?
For me, and for innumerable other human beings around the world. The violation of human rights was not a matter of reports, of negotiated resolutions, of elegant and diplomatic rhetoric, for us was a daily suffering.
For me (it meant) eight thousand days of hunger, of systematic beatings, of hard labor, of solitary confinement, of cells with steel-planked windows and doors, of solitude.
Eight thousand days of struggling to prove that I was a human being. Eight thousand days of proving that my spirit could triumph over exhaustion and pain. Eight thousand days of testing my religious convictions, my faith, of fighting the hate my atheist jailers were trying to instill in me with each bayonet thrust, fighting so that hate would not flourish in my heart. Eight thousand days of struggling so that I would not become like them, rejecting torture as a means to fight, forcing myself to forgive, rejecting the thoughts of revenge, reprisal, and cruelty.
And when cruelty is extended to one’s family, does not it become a means of torture? My father is an elderly man; he is very ill; he too suffered political imprisonment. Because he is my father, he is not allowed to leave the country. For two years now, the authorities are preying on him as reprisal for my activities. They do not beat him, but they tell him that he will be leaving the country on the following day. My father travels to the Capital full of illusions. And when he is about to board the plane, they tell him that it was a bureaucratic error that he most goes back to his hometown. They do this to him every two or five weeks. They are damaging his mind, in the same manner that they destroyed my sister, who is currently undergoing psychiatric treatment.
Occasionally, the world of the grieving has poetic traits. I think it was a book by Victor Frankel, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, where I read that in the midst of the total disheartenment in which they lived, they were kept alive by a violinist. A fellow prisoner invariably played a classical piece on his violin at sundown, and they all turned silent to listen him. That violin, pulling notes from its strings in the midst of their suffering was a secret ray of hope.
Bertold Brecht, the German playwright, tells a similar story in a moving monologue. It tells of two Jewish teenagers imprisoned at a hard-labor camp. They are a girl and a boy, and a fence keeps them apart. They have never spoken but their eyes crossed and they are in love. Daily, at the fence that separates them, each one leaves a flower pulled among the weeds as a testimony of their love. One day, her flower is missing. The following day his is gone. Hopelessness killed them both.
The arbitrariness of tyrants reduces their victims to the condition of mere beasts… dehumanizes them. In the same manner that animals are tied down, locked up, or beaten without explanation, totalitarian regimes treat their adversaries as beasts. And there are times, when one is being treated like a beast, that the only thing that saves us from the most degrading humiliation, the only thing that keeps us firm, is to know that somewhere else there is another soul that loves us, that respect us and that is fighting for the return of the dignity that has been snatched from us.
I had the luck, Mr. Chairman, of having people who were fighting for my freedom, and of having my wife who went from country to country, knocking on every door and on every conscience, on people and governments, pressuring them for my freedom. But the majority of those who suffer the violation of their human rights have one sole hope the international community. Against all hope, they only think of you, they only hope in you.
Unfortunately, I have some first-hand experience on these grieves. Many years, maybe twenty years ago, a political prisoner named Fernando López Toro came near my cell and told me in a disheartened voice that what hurt him the most about our torments, the beatings inflicted upon us, the hunger we suffered, was to think that our sacrifice was useless. Fernando was not broken by the pain but by the futility of the pain. I tried to explain to him that in the face of total ignorance and indifference from the rest of the world, our suffering still had an ethical sense and carried valuable transcendence, but I think I did not get through to him. A few years later, prisons apart, I heard that Fernando could not hold on any longer and took his own life.
Months later, I learned the details. Because of other inmates in his cell were too weak and distraught, and practically annihilated because of the physical cruelties inflicted upon them, they stood motionless, and Fernando was able to climb up on his bunk bed, wrap a dirty rag around his neck, cut it open with a piece of sharpened metal, with his fingers feeling for the jugular vein; then with one stroke, slashed it. He died within minutes.
It is always said that his jailers were directly responsible for his death, but I know that Fernando was also the victim of general apathy and lack of solidarity, of silence, of that terrible soundless universe where so many worthy men and women continue to die in this century of horrors and tramplings.
Torture and violations of human rights, come from where might, are an aggression against all mankind and we must fight back with all our strength. There lies, precisely, the efficacy of our message.
International denouncements achieve their objective. They are the only means of pressuring the torturers, the only means to force them to free prisoners for the sake of public image, to save face, to be more careful, to transgressing less.
Denouncing the criminal does not guarantee his punishment but it may deter him from continuing the practice. We must raise our voices without fear and use all resources available to defend the persecuted, the tortured of the world. We must shout their suffering for them and fearlessly denounce their henchmen.
We must enter the cell of every Fernando López del Toro in the world, embrace him in solidarity and tell them to their faces, “do not take your life, there are men of goodwill who are standing by you, your dignity as a human being will prevail. In remembrance, there will always be a flower, the notes of a violin, the saddened voice of the so-called brothers who grief with you and defend you. Look, you are not a beast. Do not take your life. Freedom will never disappear from the face of the Earth.”
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Armando Valladares is a Cuban poet released (because of international pressure) from Castro’s political dungeons in 1982 after serving 22 years of a 30-year sentence for publicly opposing the Communist take over of the Cuban Revolution.