May 8, 2000

Cuba's abuses of psychiatry

By Juan O. Tamayo . [email protected] . Published Sunday, May 7, 2000, in the Miami Herald

Worried by Cuba's record of diagnosing dissidents as mentally ill, U.S. experts on Cuban psychiatry say they fear that Fidel Castro's decision to put Elian Gonzalez under lengthy psychiatric care in an isolated house if he returns to Havana will amount to a veiled attempt to ''brainwash" the child.

''Castro believes you've got to be nuts to oppose his government. So what does that mean for Elian?" said Frank Calzon, Cuban-born director of the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington.

The Cuban government has long been accused of abusing psychiatry, like its former Soviet allies, to detain dissidents under diagnosis such as ''apathy toward socialism" and ''delusions of defending human rights."

Just six months ago, one week after Castro called jailed human rights activist Oscar Elias Biscet a ''little crazy man, police took the young physician to a psychiatric hospital for tests. Biscet refused the tests, and remains in prison, serving a three-year sentence for flying a Cuban flag upside down during a news conference.


At the heart of the issue is Cuba's steadfast portrayal of itself as a society in which ''normality" for its 11 million people, especially children, means support for Castro's ruling Communist Party.

Article 3 of the legal Children's Code, calls on ''society and the state [to] work for the efficient protection of youth against all influences contrary to their communist formation."

That means, according to Marta Molina, a Cuban psychiatrist who went into exile last year, that children who don't follow the party line not only run into trouble with authorities but get no help from psychiatrists.

All Cuban psychiatrists are under government orders to defend communism in such cases, Molina said, and ''because of the lack of adequate independent counseling, the children frequently became depressed."

She treated more than 500 children in Cuba who had ''serious psychological problems as a result of their own disagreement with the communist ideology or their parents' refusal to indoctrinate them," Molina said in a sworn affidavit given to the lawyers for Elian's Miami relatives.

Based on the government's view of normality, Cuban officials have impugned the sanity of persistent Castro critics, arguing in effect that opposition to the regime is so abnormal that dissidents must be mentally ill.

''Such a conceptualization has enabled the Cuban government to redefine some ecidivist' political activity as a form of mental illness," wrote two veteran Cuba analysts, Charles J. Brown and Armando Lago, in the 1991 book The Politics of Psychiatry in Revolutionary Cuba, published by Freedom House.

The book details the cases of 27 dissidents diagnosed since 1963 as suffering from mental ailments, mostly depression. Many received electroshocks, more as torture than treatment, the authors alleged.


Rigoberto Rodriguez, a Cuban-American who heads the South Florida Psychiatric Society, said Cuba's abuses are similar to those of the former Soviet Union, which diagnosed many dissidents in the 1970s as suffering from ''sluggish schizophrenia.

But they are even more prevalent, said Rodriguez, who sits on an American Psychiatric Association panel that investigates abuses of the profession around the world.

''We have reports of a couple of hundred cases of abuses in Cuba, the same as the couple of hundred cases in the Soviet Union but with a much smaller population," he said.

The Soviet Union abandoned the World Psychiatric Association in 1983 to avoid its censure. Cuba walked out at the same time in support of its ally, but reports of new abuses continue to be received.

In one recent case, Milagros Cruz Cano, 33, a blind dissident, was detained by state security agents in late 1998 and kept several weeks in a Havana psychiatric hospital.

Milanes said Cuban doctors diagnosed Cruz Cano as suffering from depression because her ''unfounded fantasies about life in Miami clashed with the reality of her life in Cuba."

Cruz Cano moved to Miami last year, and staged a brief hunger strike outside the Little Havana home of Elian's relatives last month to demand the Cuban government allow her young daughter to join her in exile.

U.S. experts agree Elian would need counseling in Cuba to help him over his mother's drowning in November, his removal from the home of Miami relatives and his return to a home so utterly different from South Florida.

''Elian needs treatment for the tragedy he suffered," said Dr. Ramona Paneque, a Cuban-American psychiatrist in Miami who recently attended a professional conference in Havana.

But Paneque and other experts who have studied Cuban abuses of psychiatry against political dissent fear Havana will try to erase the boy's happy memories of Miami and ''re-program" him into a loyal Castro supporter.

''I do have concerns over Cuba's intent, whether it is to turn him into a revolutionary," said Rodriguez.

He said his concerns sharpened after Cuban psychiatrists and child education experts announced on television three weeks ago that they had mapped out a plan for Elian's ''reinsertion" to Cuba society.

The program showed a two-story Havana house where Elian will live, study and play with relatives, 12 classmates and several teachers from his hometown of Cardenas -- while he is counseled by government psychiatrists.

The Cuban experts said Elian probably would spend at least three months there after his return -- presumably shut off from unauthorized visitors, although he and his classmates will go on occasional nature walks and museum trips.

Castro has often accused Elian's Miami relatives of ''brainwashing" the boy to turn against his father, Juan Miguel. He has said the boy will need privacy and counseling to readjust when he returns.

''Our hope is that he becomes fully integrated with his school group . . . [and] his surrounding environment," Lesbia Canovas, director of Cuba's Central Institute for Education Sciences, said during the TV program.

That is acceptable as far as it goes, said Paneque and three other experts. But they fear that the ''reinsertion" plans will go beyond legitimate counseling and into efforts to mold the boy into a loyal Castro supporter.

''They may try to make Elian renounce the memory of his mother and the family that helped him in Miami . . . and turn that child into an example of a good . . . revolutionary," said Dr. Fernando Milanes, retired vice-chairman of the University of Miami's psychiatry department.

Added Paneque: ''They will have to re-program him to accept the differences between Cuba and Miami."

Copyright 2000 Miami Herald



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