Cuban Psycho: Behind the walls of a Havana psychiatric clinic

This is not a German concentration camp in Auschwitz, 1944. It’s a psychiatric clinic in , 2010.

Fernando, a skinny Cuban journalist, jumps to an obsolete computer. “Will you take this to Europe,” he asks me while opening brutal looking pictures taken in a Cuban morgue. “Oh, my God, what is it?”

“OK, you don’t have to take it with you. At least look at it and then destroy it,” Fernando urges me. “The people you see died in the Cuban psychiatric clinic of Mazorra in January 2010. They were tortured. They were exhausted. During a cold night in January 41 of them were killed.”

Fernando says the photos were taken by the Police, which were supposed to quietly investigate the case and let it fade into oblivion. “There’s a story to tell about each one of these people; each of them had a life and got into Mazorra somehow. What you see is not a nameless corpse,” says Fernando, handing me a silver CD.

For possessing these photos, Fidel Castro’s regime might remind Fernando of something he remembers all too well to forget – jail. “We were locked in a dark cell, naked. But we could at least work. Not that we got any benefits for it, like more food, nothing like that. It was the only way of getting some sunshine, even though we were in chains. Other prisoners would disdain those who chose to work. They’d say they yielded to the regime.” That’s how Fernando described his experience. And now he’s standing here, in front of me, with his hand outstretched.
The shiny CD disappears into my bag.
Mazorra is located a short distance from the Jose Marti airport in Havana, where you can see tourists drinking their last Cuba Libre, with straw hats under their arms.

A little over ten hours later, my airplane lands heavily in Europe, which means that I can now freely read Fernando’s documents at last and compare them with what has been written about the Cuban clinic here.
The news on the mass death of patients in Mazorra started spreading in Havana in mid-January thanks to the staff at the clinic. It soon found its way to the Western media. Yet, due to an avalanche of other events, little attention was paid to it. Some of these brutal photographs have already leaked from and are circulating on the Internet. The Cuban journalist wasn’t able to verify this, though, since he can only gain access to the Internet no more than once a month. A single website often takes half an hour to load.

“There were 300 photos in the Mazorra file,” writes Yoani Sanchez when reporting on the case. Apparently, this Cuban blogger has even more extensive documentation than Fernando. She mentions “26 dead, maybe more.” Cuban authorities have admitted that there were seven of them. The photos, however, show dozens of skinny corpses with wounds on their heads and all over their bodies.

Who were these patients? There is a piece of paper laying on one body with the heading of the clinic. The text reads: “Carlos Manuel Ramos Hernandez, Room No. 12, 5.30pm, signed Zamorra.” Another picture shows an autopsy report: “Born on April 12, 1977, Ramon Romay Valdez, 31 years old, male, white, brown hair, single.” Full stop.

What must have happened for a thirty year old man to die, as the authorities stated: “of hypothermia due to a drop of temperature to three degrees Celsius?”

With a camera in hell
Fernando has been imprisoned once and he can be brought back to jail any time. In spite of that, he took his camera and went to Mazorra to make some inquiries. Shooting through a window, he documented skinny patients dressed in striped rags queuing for food, many of them barefoot.

“Patients have their coats and sweaters confiscated upon admission. They never get them back, even if it gets cold. What they do get, though, is cold water and electric shock torture,” says Fernando in the video accompanying his photos, where he tries to make several shaking men talk. Anyway, can you imagine an Auschwitz internee complaining of ill-treatment?

Volleyball without a ball

“The walls were white and innocent. When the foreign delegation arrived, several patients were playing volleyball in the yard. They had no ball. A while later, an old man threw them one. They played for a couple of minutes. Then the delegation left and they returned to their rooms. Game over.” That was in 1978. The very same psychiatric clinic in Havana with a capacity for over two thousand patients was shown off as the pride of the Cuban health care system. It wasn’t until a decade later when the evidence of what had really been happening there was published in The Seattle Times newspaper, which got the information from a Cuban dissident, Amaro Gomez Boix, who spent two weeks there in 1978.

In the 1990’s, another Cuban refugee, Eugenio de Sosa Chabau, went to a doctor in his new home in Hialeah in the . During the surgery he encountered a man in a white coat, whose face was familiar to him. El Enfermero. That’s how he was called – El Enfermero (“the nurse”).

“It was three in the morning when four men rushed into the room. They started shouting our names and those who were not crazy, like me, immediately tried to escape. Someone threw a bucket of shit on the floor. The men got a hold of six patients and laid them on the ground, side by side. Right there they attached electrodes to their heads. I received electro-shocks fourteen times. Mostly on the genitals,” described de Sosa Chabau about the practices in the clinic of Mazorra. He arrived there in 1977 after seventeen years of jail. That’s where he also met El Enfermero – Heriberto Mederos, who immigrated to the in a boat during the eighties as he himself did.

However, the case sparked a lengthy judicial process, which wasn’t brought to an end during the lifetime of neither de Sosa Chabau nor the accused Mederos, whom the media nicknamed Cuban Mengele for his forty years of activity in Mazorra, even though there was no evidence of murders. Within a year, Charles J. Brown and Armando M. Lago published a book, which was made up of testimonies from 37 patients who survived the “therapy” of the Havana butchers and nights full of screaming or situations when they woke up after an electro-shock therapy with broken teeth.

Five of them got into the insane asylum for trying to contact foreign journalists, while others where there due to their participation in dissent activities. A sixteen-year-old teenager Belkis Ferrro was brought there from a labour camp, where she was accused of pulling out tobacco plants instead of cleaning them off, thus destroying national crop.

How did Fidel react? “It’s just some more tricks by the desperate mother fuckers. They would have to send about 10 atomic bombs here to shake the Cuban Revolution,” Reuters quoted Fidel’s message to the .

And what’s happening this year? Six months after the death of these tortured patients and after the world saw the first pictures taken during the autopsy, Fidel’s brother Raul dismissed the 78-year-old Health Minister, Jose Ramon Balaguer.

But as Fernando says, “The names of the deceased have still not been disclosed to anyone and their families can only speculate…” Direct evidence is still being confined in Mazorra.

Could the evidence from January 2010 be substantially different from that of 1991 or 1978? Psychiatrist Vladimir Bukowski, who spent twelve years in Soviet camps and asylums, comments on the testimonies made twenty and thirty years ago with the following words: “Those who have experience with communist regimes may feel disgusted and humiliated on reading the documents and testimonies from the Cuban psychiatric clinic. Yet, they won’t be surprised.”