Memorial Day was, not so long ago, when we were all honoring the men and women who served in the Armed Forces of the United States. In commemorative ceremonies, and acts of remembrance across the country, Americans paid special homage to those who gave their lives, were wounded, or suffered as POWs in the cause of freedom. Memorial Day also served to reacquaint some of us with our history, remember the heroism of our young and rekindle our commitment that their sacrifice was not in vain.
But there is one piece of our history that has not received the attention it deserves: The torturing of American servicemen by Fidel Castro’s officers in Vietnam. These days, we see one article after another in glossy American magazines praising the beauties and charm of Castro’s Cuba. Granted, most of the authors of such articles note regretfully – and briefly – that the lot of the average Cuban leaves a lot to be desired, but focuses on the wonderful tourist potential of the island 90 miles off our shores.
Today, however, I received a letter from Erneido A. Oliva, who identified himself as “Major General (DC) Retired,” with quite an amazing enclosure – a pamphlet reprinting some 30 pages from the 1999 book, “Honor Bound: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia 1961-1973.” The text is a chapter titled “The Zoo, 1967-1969: The Cuban Program and Other Atrocities.”
The back of the pamphlet bears a quote of Senator John McCain from his 1999 “Faith of My Fathers” – “…[T]he Zoo, where mass torture was a routine practice. For a time, the camp personnel at the Zoo included an English-speaking Cuban, called “Fidel” by the POWs, who delighted in breaking Americans, even when the task required him to torture his victim to death.”
In August 1967, the American POWs had their first encounter with the Cubans. At first the Americans thought the two men might be Eastern European, but because they had Spanish accents and “an intimate knowledge of Central America,” the POWs decided they were Latin American, probably Cuban, although they never identified themselves.
The Americans took to calling the larger of the two “Fidel.” He was a six footer, wearing a white shirt, pressed blue trousers, and “pointy-toed European-style shoes,” with straight jet-black hair, penetrating eyes, and an intimidating manner, he reminded one of the pilots of the actor Anthony Quinn. The other man was less threatening than Fidel; called “Chico,” during the year they were at the Zoo, played the role of “good cop” to Fidel’s bully.
Selectively, Fidel would work over various prisoners. Really work them over, gradually raising the level of physical violence, but keeping the prisoners off balance by alternating hard sell and soft, sometimes switching roles with Chico, and leavening temper with humor. He would subject cellmates to sharply contrasting treatment and would order one beaten viciously while the other was forced to watch.
As time went by, methodicalness increasingly gave way to caprice and expediency. The Cuban took to kicking the prisoners with his paratrooper boots, introduced the fan belt to the repertoire, and, as one of the men said, “loved direct hits to the face.” With a couple of the stiffer resisters, he used the water torture, gagging their mouths and pouring water in their nostrils. By Christmas, all 10 POWs had been broken.
After the war, the DIA, CIA, and FBI investigators studied stacks of photographs, biographical sketches and leads relating to Cuban activity during 1967-68 without establishing positive identification. Intelligence sources counted more than 2,000 Cubans serving in the North in various capacities during that period.
What can we do today? Let us at least always remember the role these Cubans played and the mark they left on the lives of valiant American servicemen. Particularly remember them when we’re being asked to savor the delights of Castro’s island today.