Lessons from an American in Castro's Gulag

Tuesday, January 21, 2014
If you have any doubt that Castro's hostage-taking of American development worker Alan Gross was premeditated, read the following interview carefully.

Florida Today's Matt Reed sat down with onetime smuggler Rick Townson, who has published a book about his nine-year imprisonment in Cuba's gulags:

Lessons from Castro's Gulag

Rick Townson thought he might die in the Cuban prisons where he was held for drug smuggling and kept as a political bargaining chip.

Townson now lives on a sailboat in Indian Harbour Beach and has published a book about his ordeal, “Hotel Fidel Castro: An American’s nine years in the Cuban gulag.”

Townson believes he owes his release to the misfortune of Alan Gross, a U.S. aid contractor arrested for spying and sentenced in 2011 to 15 years.

His story begins in 2002. Then a cab driver in Key West, Townson was persuaded by friends to join a boat trip to Jamaica to smuggle marijuana. The return voyage went badly, and he found himself handcuffed and exhausted at a marina in Havana as Cuban authorities seized 650 pounds of pot.

Q,. How does American justice compare to the system you encountered?

Townson: Here, there’s a sense of fairness in the courts and you can get an attorney to protect your rights.

Down there, you’re locked in a box that can barely fit four grown men. There’s a hole in the floor for a toilet. Our bunks were solid steel, with a thin layer of felt for a mattress. Poor-quality food. I’ve never been so cold as that January in Cuba.

They just wait until you’re ready to spill your guts.

Q. Did you get a trial?

Townson: In Cuba, they don’t even tell you what you’re charged with until one month before you go to court. They were already handing out sentences to the other men there, mostly on trumped-up charges. I prepared a plea for mercy, and they took off five years for my eloquent speech.

Q. So instead of earning a quick $100,000 for you and a girlfriend’s retirement, you end up sentenced to 25 years for trafficking. Why do you call it a “gulag?”

Townson: I was sent to a camp in the middle of a sugarcane field. It was for nothing but foreigners, about 70 or 80 of us. Everyone was there for smuggling or petty crime. No one was stupid enough to commit murder or assault in Cuba.

I realized quickly they had collected five Americans: myself, the captain of my boat and three others. It matched the number of Cuban spies who had been captured and convicted in the United States back in 1998.

European countries that had given Castro aid began criticizing him for arresting his citizens for their political views. Quickly, he started arresting men from those countries. A Belgian newspaper would rake him over the coals. And three weeks later, here come three Belgian guys, looking bewildered.

Castro was using us in a game of trying to trade Mickey Mouse criminals for the “five Cuban heroes,” as they call them. There were never more than five Americans.

Q. What were your days like?

Townson: It was a certain level of psychological torture the whole time. Every morning when they would count us, they would give us these communist speeches about the glory of the revolution. We would have to stand and listen to them from all sorts of government officials.

If you show any emotion or anger, they send you to what we nicknamed the Big House — a four-building, four-story prison that holds 10,000 prisoners. No one wanted to go there. If you bloodied someone’s nose, you’d have to serve an extra five years.

There were rumors that there was going to be a big foreign-prisoner release, but that didn’t happen. I believe it was because President George Bush was re-elected and Fidel Castro didn’t expect that.

About six years in, I had health problems and didn’t think I was going to make it any longer.

Q. Why were you released after nine years?

Townson: Alan Gross. Castro finally got a prisoner that the U.S. government cared about.

I called the U.S. Interests Section in Havana one day to ask about some emails I had expected, and they said, “Can you call back? We have a crisis. A U.S. diplomat has been arrested.”

I listened to the BBC on the shortwave radio, and found out about Gross, who wasn’t really a diplomat.

Fidel Castro will take his last breaths with Alan Gross in prison unless he gets his heroes back.

Q. Any advice for Americans who might travel there?

Townson: It’s risky. I would tell anyone, “Don’t go.”

But in the long term, Americans need to see how an industrious people under that system live in such abject poverty.