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Academies To Produce Macho-Men In Cuba

Academies To Produce Macho-Men In Cuba / Abel Sierra Madero
Posted on February 19, 2016

In the 1960s, close to 30,000 young men were detained in forced-labor
camps. The mistreatments that took place in these camps, known as
Military Units to Aid Production UMAP, in the name of “social hygiene,”
testify to the homophobic component of the Cuban Revolution.

Abel Sierra Madero, From Letras Libras, January 2016 — Between 1965 and
1968, the Cuban government established, in the central region of the
country, dozens of forced-labor camps known as Military Units to Aid
Production (UMAP), where about 30,000 men were sent under the pretext of
the Obligatory Military Service Law (SMO). The hybrid structure of work
camps cum military units served to camouflage the true objectives of the
recruitment effort and to distance the UMAPs from the legacy of forced
labor. Thus the military-style organization and discipline to which the
detainees were subjected could be justified. November 2015 marked 50
years since the regime implemented this experiment.

Historians have generally avoided research into state social-control
policies based on forced labor, concentration and isolation of thousands
of Cuban citizens at rural locations set up during the 1960s. Likewise,
they have rejected the usage of such terminology, as if it did not apply
to the case of Cuban socialism, or its use was not “politically
incorrect.” By the same token, testimonies and narratives produced by
former UMAP detainees have almost always been held suspect. A
fascination with beards and uniforms on the part of the mainstream press
in Europe and the US, along with powerful images constructed by
revolutionary propaganda, have up to now overshadowed the testimonies of
Cuban exiles regarding their terrible experiences in these camps.

These accounts became part of an anti-communist narrative to which,
supposedly, the exiles had to conform in order to survive outside Cuba.
At least, that was what Ambrosio Fornet, one of the most recognized
intellectuals on the Island, thought in 1984 while giving an interview
to Gay Community News. Although he recognized that the UMAPs were a sort
of “academy to produce macho-men,” Fornet criticized the perspectives on
the repression offered by exiled Cuban writers and artists in the
documentary film, Improper Conduct (1984), by Néstor Almendros and
Orlando Jiménez Leal. According to Fornet, the majority of the witnesses
who appeared in the film lied about UMAP; the writers were saying “what
they should say because they’re making a living off of anti-communism.”
He added, “The idea of a repressive police state that persecutes
individuals is totally absurd and stupid.”

UMAP cannot be understood as an isolated institution, but rather as part
of a project of “social engineering” geared toward social and political
control. That is, a technology that involved the judicial, military,
educational, medical and psychiatric apparatuses. For the establishment
of these camps, complex methodologies were employed to identify specific
subjects and purge them from mass institutions and organizations, up to
and including their recruitment and internment.

Masculinization and Militarization

There were several criteria that the authorities took into account to
recruit and intern thousands of subjects in the forced-labor camps. One
of them was homosexuality, and it is estimated that around 800
homosexuals were shut away in the camps. Nevertheless, there were other,
political, reasons.

In the mid-1960s, Cuba was involved in a transnational process of
constructing socialism along with the Soviet Union, the Eastern
socialist bloc, and China. These regimes invested many symbolic
resources in the creation of national stereotypes that were almost
always associated with complex processes of masculinization. In this
sense, the concept of the “New Man” was one of the most powerful ideals
within these systems, although it had also been used by German Nazism
and Italian Fascism.

In the Cuban case, this concept was associated with a broader
ideological strain of social homogenization in which fashion, urban
sociability practices, religious creeds and work-related behavior were
key elements to bring in line with the official normative vision. Thus
it is not strange that—besides homosexuals—delinquents, religious
believers, intellectuals or simply young men of bourgeois background,
were also sent to UMAP.

Although the establishment of the forced-labor camps was accomplished
towards the end of 1965, these camps were created under the pretext of
Law 1129 of 26 November 1963, which established Obligatory Military
Service (SMO) for a period of three years, for men between the ages of
16 and 45. The law exempted those who were the only source of economic
support for their parents, spouse and children. At least in theory, the
law allowed for a deferral of the recruitment of young men who were
finishing their final year of secondary school, pre-university, or
university studies.

Nonetheless, the authorities applied those sections with discretion,
employing political criteria regarding UMAP. Some young men who
constituted the only support for their families were recruited without
regard for the consequences for those domestic economies. Many students
of diverse educational levels who were at the point of graduating became
eligible for recruitment to the SMO when they were expelled as part of a
“purification” process. This process, which began around 1965—a few
months before the first call to UMAP—had the character of a “purge,” a
social crusade, headed by the Union of Young Communists (UJC) against
those who were not perceived as “revolutionaries.”

In a communication published in Mella magazine on 31 May 1965, the UJC
admonished high school students to expel “counterrevolutionary and
homosexual elements” from their groups in the final year of study, so as
to impede their university admissions. Also mentioned are those who
display “deviances,” or “some kind of petit-bourgeois softness and
apathy towards the revolutionary activities being performed by the
student body.” They should be sent to the SMO so that they may “gain the
right” to be admitted to university. “You know who they are, you have
had to fight them many times […] apply the strength of worker and
peasant power, the strength of the masses, the right of the masses
against their enemies […] Away with the homosexuals and
counterrevolutionaries from our schools!” Thus concluded the communication.

A few days later, Alma Mater magazine—the official organ of the
Federation of University Students (FEU)—went along with this policy,
assuring readers that the purification was the result of the historical
moment, and a “necessity for the future development of the Revolution.”
The assertion was that the purges of counterrevolutionaries and
homosexuals should not be understood as two isolated processes, but
rather as one, because “so noxious are the influence and activity of
both of them to the formation of the professional revolutionary of the

Once the purges were finalized, those young men were left exposed and at
the mercy of the State. Their entry into UMAP was a matter of time. No
sooner were the purifications concluded, via the Committees for the
Defense of the Revolution (CDR)—one of the most effective surveillance
institutions created for social and political control in Cuba—than
censuses were conducted to identify those youths who were not working
nor going to school. This information was provided to the Ministry of
the Interior and the Ministry of Revolutionary Armed Forces (MINFAR),
the entities charged with recruitment for the UMAPs.

By 1964, Fidel Castro was boasting of the impact the SMO was having on
Cuban youth, and emphasizing the failure of institutions such as the
family and school in the education of young people. “All right, then,
what they could not teach them at home,” he would declare, “what they
could not teach them in school, what they could not teach them at the
institute, they learned in the army, they learned in a military unit.”
For his part, his brother Raúl Castro Ruz, at that time minister of the
FAR, gave assurances in a speech delivered on 17 April 1965, that the
objectives of the Revolution could only be achieved with a “youth of
tempered character,” possessing a “firm character” that was “forged in
sacrifice,” far from “softnesses.” A youth that would be inspired “not
by dancers of the Twist and Rock and Roll, nor by a display of
pseudo-intellectualism,” a youth that would stay away from “all that
would weaken the character of men.”

The economic utilization of the body

By way of these processes of militarization and masculinization, the
intent was not only to correct gestures and postures, but to reorient
and reintegrate those forces and bodies to an economic apparatus. The
rhetoric of war, employed repeatedly by the leaders of the Revolution,
was incorporated into the ideological and economic discourse in the form
of military-type campaigns, and the workers were seen as heroes and
soldiers—not just to insert them into a political rituality, but to
utilize them as a workforce without having to compensate them
financially. In a 1969 article, economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago analyed the
types of non-paid work during the 1960s in Cuba, and among those models
mentioned UMAP. According to Mesa-Lago, the government achieved savings
of around $300-million Cuban pesos through non-paid labor between 1962
and 1967.

Around the 1960s, the Cuban economy was dependent on sugar, but the
mechanization of cane-cutting was not widespread, therefore the success
of the harvests depended on manual cutting. During this period, the
sugar harvests began to form part of a great ideological leap that Fidel
Castro had planned for 1970. The Maximum Leader was trying to take the
Island to a higher degree in the construction of socialism by way of a
harvest of ten-million tons of sugar. To achieve the desired effect,
Castro needed to mobilize and deploy a major workforce to the areas
where large sugar plantations were located. Camagüey province, with
considerable expanses of land and scarce labor, was strategically
selected for the establishment of the UMAPs in the final months of 1965.

Thus, the camps were inserted into the planned socialist economy, as had
occurred in the Soviet Union with the gulag (General Directorate of
Labor Camps). Vladimir V. Tchernavin, who managed to escape from a
Soviet gulag, describes how, at the start of 1930, that institution
became a great forced-labor enterprise, appearing to be a correctional
entity, which allowed for the establishment of development plans in
places where such an endeavor would have been very difficult without the
available forced labor. According to Tchernavin, the gulag provided a
structure and functions similar to those of a state enterprise, it was
organized like military units, and the detainees received a miserable
wage for their work.

A similar thing occurred with UMAP. The inmates of these camps, as well
as others recruited by the SMO, received a salary of seven pesos per
month, and they were compelled to participate in what is known as
“socialist emulation,” a type of competition to incentivize production
in which the “vanguards” did not receive financial compensation, but
rather diplomas or recognition during political and mass events.

“Social hygiene is what this is called”
It could be said that at the start of 1959, moral panic was the
ideological framework on which the campaign for national regeneration
was based, which called the entire nation to liquidate the “vices” of
the past and consolidate revolutionary power. But very soon, this
religious sort of schema was complemented with speeches about hygiene
and the notion of “social sickness.”

On 15 April 1965, some months before the first recruitment drive for the
UMAPs, the writer Samuel Feijóo, in El Mundo newspaper, published
“Revolution and Vices,” an account of the tensions that caused the
merging of the religious, political and hygienic discourses. Among the
vices that still needed to be eradicated, the writer pointed to
alcoholism, and “rampant and provocative homosexuality.” He assured
readers that the matter was “not about persecuting homosexuals, but
rather about destroying their positions, their procedures, their
influence. Social hygiene is what this is called.”

In this manner, the discourses on hygiene and those that came out of the
field of psychology were adapted to justify the UMAPs. The camps became
a quarantine area, a laboratory that provided not only for the isolation
of inmates, but also for the opportunity to study them. In May of 1966,
a few months after the UMAPs had been established, María Elena Solé put
together a team of psychologists and physicians that made up a secret
operation organized by the political arm of MINFAR, to design and work
on rehabilitation and reeducation programs for homosexuals in UMAP.

According to Solé’s testimony to me in March 2012, the team’s work
consisted in “evaluating these persons from a psychological
perspective.” But the evaluation and classification was not based
exclusively on aspects related to the generic-sexual configuration of
the individuals, but rather incorporated also an ideological criterion.

The team of psychologists drew upon the notion of “afocancia,” a
cubanism not recognized by the dictionary, which has been employed to
negatively describe those persons who stand out publicly because of
certain physical or moral characteristics. Thus, a Template A (for
“afocante”) was designed, to distribute homosexuals across four scales:
A1, A2, A3 and A4. Type-1 “afocantes” were considered to be those “who
did not make a public show of their problem, and were revolutionaries—in
the sense that they did not wish to leave the country—comported
themselves in a normal fashion, and were more or less integrated into
society.” Conversely, “one who let his feathers fly and who, besides,
was not integrated into the Revolution nor had any interest in it,” and
had expressed a desire to leave the country, was considered a Type-4
“afocante.” As María Elena Solé explained, “there were revolutionaries
in this group, but if someone made a display of his problem, we would
not classify him as A-1, but as A-4.”

Some of the former UMAP inmates assure me that the team of psychologists
conducted various experiments and tests of a behaviorist and
reflexologist nature, which included the application of electroshock.
However, Dr. Solé asserts that the tests that were done were solely
designed to “measure intelligence.” In contrast, Héctor Santiago — a
theater person connected to one of the most controversial cultural
projects of the 1960s in Cuba, Ediciones El Puente, and who was sent to
a UMAP — assured me that the team’s examinations were, at least in their
totality, of another character. According to Santiago, the psychologists
and psychiatrists utilized behaviorist techniques in the UMAPs such as
shocks produced by electrodes, and insulin-produced comas. These
experiments consisted in the application of alternating-current shocks
“while showing us photographs of nude men, so that we would
subconsciously reject them, turning us by-force into heterosexuals.”

This description concurs with various articles that detailed this
procedure and that circulated in specialized Cuban journals of
psychology and psychiatry during the 1960s. This therapy, which had been
developed in Prague by K. Freund, consisted in creating conditioned
reflexes. In Cuba it was Dr. Edmundo Gutiérrez Agramonte who
incorporated this practice.

Felipe Guerra Matos, the official in charge of the dismantling UMAP,
remarked to me during an interview in June 2015, that the idea of
placing teams of psychologists in the UMAPs had been his, and that up to
30,000 subjects were confined in them, including approximately 850
homosexuals. At one point in the conversation, Guerra Matos stated, “We
committed grave errors, imposing punishments on the little faggots, a
lot of things were done there […] They were made to stare into the sun,
to count ants […] ‘Go ahead, stare into the sun, you’ll see.’ Any
abomination that occurred to some harebrained guard. I am at fault,
because I signed off on recruitments.”

The punishments in the UMAPs could range from verbal insults to physical
mistreatment and torture. Several of my interviewees assured me that one
of the methods of punishment employed by some guards consisted in
burying the detainee in a hole in the ground and leaving him with his
head exposed for several hours. Some were dunked in a tank of water
until they lost consciousness; others were tied to a stake or a fence
and left for the night, exposed to the elements, so that they would be
food for mosquitos. According to Héctor Santiago, this method of
punishment was called “the stake.” The torment and mortification of the
body had a purpose of intimidation and formed part of a narrative in
which the punishments were given names such as the “trapeze,” the
“brick,” the “rope,” the “hole,” among others.

On the other hand, many of the camps were surrounded by barbed-wire
fences, used repeatedly in jails and concentration camps. According to
the singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés, who was sent to UMAP in 1966, these
fences were composed of 14 wire strands, arranged so that they reached
up to six meters in height. A brief song is dedicated to this wire fence
and the enclosure, entitled, “Fourteen Strands and One Day.” Milanés
explained to me that the song was not recorded in those years, but
rather later, in the studios of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic
Art and Industry, in the 1970s.

Fourteen strands and one day separate me from my beloved,

Fourteen strands and one day separate me from my mother,

And now I know whom I will love

When the strands and the day

I am able to leave.


The history of this sad experiment has remained buried on the Island. Up
to today, the Cuban government has constantly denied the character of
the UMAPs, and has sought to erase from the collective imagination
anything related to this subject. At the same time, the international
Left has preferred to view UMAP as an error inherent to revolutionary
movements. This ideological exercise has been influenced by the manner
in which the figure of Fidel Castro became one of the most powerful
representations of the Revolution. Therefore, once the critiques and
international campaigns calling for the dismantling of the camps began,
it became indispensable to disassociate the Maximum Leader from these
processes, so that UMAP could be justified as an exception that should
not be identified with the Revolution. This is how, for example, Ernesto
Cardenal did it. In his book, En Cuba (1972), the Nicaraguan poet and
theologian told of how he was visited by two young men who were
interested in complementing his official view of the Island. One of them
had been a “jailer” for UMAP, and assured Cardenal that it was Fidel
Castro who eliminated those “concentration camps,” invoking at times the
law of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The picturesque account
that Cardenal narrates in his book constitutes the only source that
makes this type of reference. In 2010, during an interview granted to
the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Fidel Castro himself finally “assumed”
his responsibility in the establishment of those work camps.

UMAP was officially dissolved via Law 058 of October 1968. Although
these camps disappeared as an institution, other, more sophisticated
devices and institutions replaced them, keeping intact the spirit and
motivations that created them. The decade of the 1970s was still to come.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Source: Academies To Produce Macho-Men In Cuba / Abel Sierra Madero |
Translating Cuba –

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