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Demystifying las UMAP – The Politics of Sugar, Gender, and Religion in 1960s Cuba

Demystifying las UMAP: The Politics of Sugar, Gender, and Religion in
1960s Cuba
Joseph Tahbaz
’15 History major
Dartmouth College

Abstract: The UMAP, las Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción,
were forced-work agricultural labor camps operated by the Cuban
government during the mid-1960s in the east-central province of
Camagüey. The current academic literature on the UMAP camps has
exclusively taken into account homosexual internees’ experiences and has
characterized the camps solely as an instance of gender policing. This
paper will argue:
1) the UMAP was an integral component of the Cuban Revolution’s larger
economic, social, and political goals,
2) the experiences of the diverse gamut of UMAP internees cannot be
generalized into a single, concentration-camp narrative, and
3) although gay men certainly endured horrific treatment at the camps,
Jehovah’s Witnesses were the victims of the worst brutality at the UMAP.

Keywords: Cuba, UMAP, forced labor, gender, race, homosexuality,
Jehovah’s Witnesses

The only third-party testimony of the UMAP camps comes from Canadian
journalist Paul Kidd, who was expelled from Cuba on September 8, 1966.1
The Cuban Foreign Ministry alleged that Kidd had written articles
critical of the Cuban Revolution and had taken photos of anti-aircraft
guns visible from his Havana hotel room window.2 Paul Kidd had just
returned from an unauthorized trip to Camagüey, where he “had the unique
experience … of tracking down a forced-labor camp hidden in the lush
sugar fields of central Cuba” (Kidd 1969, 24). What Paul Kidd chanced
upon were the “camps … known simply as UMAP” (24).

For nearly half a century, historians have almost entirely omitted the
UMAP camps from Cuban history while Cuban exiles have denounced the UMAP
as concentration camps.3 The current, scarce literature on the UMAP
camps has exclusively incorporated homosexual internees’ experiences and
has characterized the camps solely as an instance of gender policing.4
This article argues that the UMAP was not a fringe of revolutionary
policy aimed at a sliver of the population, but an integral and
multifaceted component of the Cuban Revolution’s economic, social, and
political aspirations. Firstly, the UMAP was a means of repressing
insufficiently revolucionario5 elements of civil society, such as
religious groups and secret societies. Secondly, the UMAP constituted
the extreme fringe of a nuanced spectrum of coerced, unpaid labor that
was central to the Revolution’s economic goals. Thirdly, the UMAP sought
to “correct” those who exhibited a revolutionarily improper masculinity
and discriminated against not only homosexuals, but also Afro-Cubans.
Finally, while gay men certainly endured horrific treatment at the
camps, history ought to remember Jehovah’s Witnesses as the victims of
the worst brutality at the UMAP camps. At the same time, however, the
experiences of the diverse gamut of UMAP internees – ranging from
Catholic priests to los hippies, as well as artists and intellectuals –
cannot be generalized into a single, concentration-camp narrative.
Instead, the UMAP camps performed many different functions and held many
different meanings. Because a topic of this nature is nearly impossible
to study in Cuba, the arguments put forth in this article draw upon
sources such as Cuban newspapers, memoirs of the camps, and interviews
with former internees.

The UMAP, las Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción, were
agricultural forced-work camps operated by the Cuban government between
November 1965 and July 1968 in the east-central province of Camagüey.6
Two years before the first internees were sent to UMAP camps, the Cuban
government published Law 1129, which established a three-year SMO –
Servicio Militar Obligatorio (Obligatory Military Service).7 Under the
pretense of the SMO, those considered unfit for the regular military
service were sent to the UMAP camps. Two former Cuban intelligence
agents have both estimated that of approximately 35,000 UMAP internees,8
about 500 ended up in psychiatric wards, 70 died from torture, and 180
committed suicide (Fuentes 300–3; Vivés 238). The persons most
frequently interned at the camps were religiosos (religious zealots) and
gay men.9 The large swath of internees included Jehovah’s Witnesses (Ros
191), Seventh Day Adventists (Blanco 73), Catholics (Cardenal 293),
Baptists (Muñoz; Blanco 73), Methodists (Yglesias 295), Pentecostals
(Blanco 87), Episcopalians (Blanco 73), practitioners of Santería
(Santiago), Abakuá members (Santiago; Izquierdo; Llovio 151; Cabrera
164), Gideon members (“Unidades,” 8), those suspected of intending to
flee the country (Cabrera 12; Blanco 34, 67; Ros 47), priests (Ros 62),
artists (Guerra 2010, 268), intellectuals (Guerra 2010, 268),
ideologically nonconforming university students (Blanco 66; Ros 122),
lesbians (Guerra 2012, 254), los hippies (Improper Conduct; Cabrera 55),
marihuaneros (potheads) (Muñoz), drug addicts (Yglesias 299), political
prisoners (Santiago), government officials accused of corruption (Llovio
160), criminals (Ros 152; Former), prostitutes (Guerra 2012, 254;
Garinger 7; Martínez 70–71), pimps (Yglesias 299), farmers who refused
collectivization (Fuentes 300–3), persons who worked for themselves
illegally (Fuentes 300–3), vagos (deadbeats) (Blanco 2013), and anyone
else considered “anti-social” or “counter-revolutionary.” With no single
group forming the majority, the term “UMAP internee” represents a
decidedly plural collective.

The UMAP was no state secret. In a roaring March 1966 speech delivered
on the escalinata (large stairway) of the University of Havana, Fidel
Castro remarked “some have to go to the SMO; some have to go to la UMAP,
Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción” (Castro 1966). In 1966 and
1967, at least a dozen different articles in the Cuban press referenced
the UMAP camps, complete with photos of lush sugarcane fields and
interviews with cheerful internees.10

The two main recogidas (round-ups) of UMAP internees occurred in
November 1965 and June 1966 (Ros 146, 151). The Comités de Defensa de la
Revolución (CDR) – a nationwide government organization located on every
block – was mainly responsible for informing the military who were
destined for the UMAP camps (Yglesias 27, 275; Blanco 72; Lumsden 67;
Santiago). Most individuals were taken to the camps through a false
notice to appear for military service (Santiago; Ros 52, 79, 94, 101,
141). Individuals would receive a telegram with a notice to appear for
SMO at locations such as sports stadiums (Ros 37, 73; Cabrera 37).
Instead of being transferred to an SMO military camp, these individuals
were transported by train, truck, or bus to UMAP agricultural
forced-work camps in Camagüey (Ros 15). Conditions on the eight-hour
trip across the island were often very poor, with many internees
deprived of clean water and food (Cabrera 45; Ros 72–75). Often provided
no stops and no facilities on the ride, they had to relieve themselves
within the passenger compartment of the train or bus (Cabrera 45;
Santiago; Ros 72–75; Improper Conduct). Alternatively, instead of
receiving a false SMO notice, many individuals were directly rounded up
off the streets into buses and shipped to UMAP camps (Improper Conduct;
Martínez 66; Llovio 156). This selection method was reserved for gay men
and antisociales (anti-socials) such as los hippies. Former UMAP
internee and Ministerio del Interior (MININT) informer José Luis
Llovio-Menéndez wrote in his memoir that “MININT officers would patrol
known homosexual gathering places … they rounded up anyone who looked
like a homosexual and shipped these people off to UMAP” (156). According
to Cuban propaganda at the time, homosexuality looked like tight pants,
dark sunglasses, and sandals.11

Each UMAP camp typically held 120 men12 split into three compañías
(companies) of 40 internees further divided into squads of 10 (Ros
34).The number of internees could vary considerably, however, and some
camps held several hundred internees (Cabrera 245; Former). A typical
camp was a few hundred meters long and about one hundred fifty meters
wide and had three barracks, two for internees and one for military
personnel (Former; Sanger; Muñoz). The camps were surrounded by a 10
feet tall barbed-wire fence and had no running water or electricity
(Cardenal 294; Cabrera 54; Blanco 47; Ros 10; Muñoz; Sanger). Camp
brigades were given revolucionario names such as “Vietnam Heroico,”
“Mártires de Girón,” and “Héroes del Granma.”13 Most camps had bunk beds
with jute sacks slung between wooden beams for mattresses (Kidd 1969,
25; Cabrera 50; Former). Some camps had hammocks (Cabrera 53) or no beds
at all (Ros 84) and a few provided actual mattresses (Cabrera 167). The
UMAP uniform consisted of verde olivo (olive green) or dark blue pants,
a long-sleeve light blue denim shirt, and military boots (Ros 95;
Yglesias 278; Cabrera 53; Blanco 47; Llovio 147; Muñoz). As each camp
held roughly one hundred individuals and there were tens of thousands of
internees, hundreds of UMAP camps were scattered throughout Camagüey
(Kidd 1969, 24).

The internees were often divided by category (Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay
men, Catholics, etc.) en route to the camps (Ros 24, 55). Each internee
was called by a number which was assigned to them upon arriving at the
camps (Santiago; Cabrera 61; Muñoz). In general, there were two types of
camps: camps only for gay men and camps for everyone else (Ros 55, 87;
Former; Llovio 156). Even while gay men were temporarily stationed at
the camps for general internees, they were sometimes assigned to a
separate platoon for homosexuals (Cabrera 58; Viera). To transfer
internees to camps for homosexuals, the guards would call the entire
camp to assemble and publicly select those who would be transferred (Ros
176). That the military actively segregated gay men not only from
society but also from within the camps demonstrates just how preoccupied
the government was with curbing the “diffusion” of homosexuality.

Internees performed a variety of agricultural tasks, ranging from
picking boniato (sweet potato), yucca, and fruit to tearing down
marabú,14 applying fertilizer, and weeding. Nonetheless, internees were
primarily engaged in planting and harvesting sugar cane (Ros 131–32;
Blanco 100; Bejel 100). Both SMO recruits and UMAP internees received an
equally meager salary: seven pesos a month – exactly one-tenth of the
state’s monthly minimum wage in agriculture at the time (Ros 31;
Mesa-Lago 1981, 147; Kidd 1969, 24). Internees worked Monday through
Saturday and sometimes had to perform what was called trabajo voluntario
(volunteer work) on Sundays, which consisted of more agricultural labor,
but without any production quotas (Former; Blanco 100–101). Otherwise,
Sundays were spent resting and doing activities such as washing clothes
and writing letters to family members (Blanco 100, 104). The camp
político15 gave internees daily talks about current events and communist
ideology, with longer sessions on Sundays (Kidd 1969, 24; Blanco 53;
Former). Certain internees were released early in 1967 while others
stayed longer, but in general they were held at the camps for about
two-and-a-half years, i.e., until the dissolution of the camps in 1968
(Llovio 172–3; Yglesias 294; Former; Ronet 55).

The most vital function of the UMAP camps was not killing or torturing
civilians, but exploiting the labor of Cuba’s supposed degenerates. The
experiences and conditions in the UMAP varied widely, but the one
constant among all the testimony is the inhumane number of hours these
internees were forced to work. One internee recalled that each worker’s
daily quota for cutting sugar cane ranged between 18 and 24 cordeles
lineales, which is between 366 meters and 488 meters of cane.16 On
average, internees worked about 60 hours a week, but some internees have
reported working even more, at 12 hours a day, six days a week (Blanco
100; Cardenal 294; Kidd 1969, 24): “during the zafra [sugar harvest], we
would get up earlier, sometimes at four … we worked nonstop until lunch
… a few minutes of rest and we returned to cutting sugar cane until
dusk” (Muñoz). Llovio-Menéndez wrote that the work schedule at one camp
during the zafra began at 4:30 AM and ended at 7:00 PM with one 15
minute break at 10:00 AM and two hours allotted for lunch (147). Working
hours were longest during the zafra, which typically lasted from January
to April, but due to labor shortages in the 1960s was lengthened from
November to June (Pérez 236). For essentially half of the year, UMAP
internees were forced to cut sugar cane from sunrise to sunset six days
a week.

Certain internees were granted passes to leave the camps for lengths of
time ranging from one afternoon up to ten days (Cabrera 153–55, 176,
179, 203; Muñoz; Viera). Typically, they were only permitted to visit a
neighboring town or village, but sometimes they could go as far as
Havana. Internees were also given a week to spend with their families
for Christmas vacation and the New Year (Cabrera 228; Blanco 123;
“Vacaciones,” 1966). For all of these trips, internees had to pay for
their own transportation (Blanco 124). Internees could also write and
receive letters and even receive packages, but all correspondence was
censored (Santiago; Cabrera 87–88). After three to six months in the
camps, internees were usually allowed to receive visits by family
members on one designated Sunday out of the month (Sanger; Blanco 91,
108; Former; Kidd 1969, 24). Family visits were supervised and internees
could not exchange uninspected documents with family members, but they
were allowed to bring internees items such as cigarettes or food (Kidd
1969, 24; Cabrera 112). Family visits were held at an off-site location
where family members were allowed to take photos with the internees
(Blanco 109; Muñoz). To maintain the illusion that the UMAP camps were
part of the standard SMO, the recruits wore a special uniform and
marched in unison for family visits (Cabrera 109; Muñoz). Besides family
visits, Catholic priests and Catholic youth occasionally visited
internees and even administered the Eucharist (Cabrera 136–37; Ros 185).
These visitation privileges demonstrate how the conditions at the UMAP
differed in some measure from what one would typically expect at
forced-work camps.

Many internees have reported that the quality and quantity of food in
the camps was very poor. One internee, who claimed to have gone from 170
to 120 pounds by his first family visit, remembered that at his camp
they ate stray cats, hens, and snakes they captured while working in the
fields (Blanco 108, 134). To the contrary, one former UMAP internee
claimed that “there was enough food … we ate lots of canned meat,
sardines, condensed milk; there was milk, rice, beans, there was plenty”
(Former). Although internees generally were not starved, internees did
not receive food if they had not completed their production quota for
the day (Former; Blanco 57). One reason for the scarcity of food was
that military officials would hoard foodstuffs for their personal use or
sell them to guajiros (people from the countryside) (Ros 166–68; Blanco
83). Water deprivation was another form of mistreatment (Blanco 55).
Former internee René Cabrera wrote in his memoir that at one camp they
were allotted just three glasses of water a day while they spent all day
outside in the sun cutting sugar cane (138). As a result, internees had
to drink contaminated water they found accumulated in the fields
(Cabrera 144; Blanco 55). Internees were granted access to medical
treatment and when necessary were transferred to military hospitals for
illness. Still, the denial of treatment by arbitrary camp guards
resulted in the deaths of some internees (Blanco 70–72, 115–22; Ros

There are many reports of physical abuse at the camps, especially
directed towards testigos de Jehová (Jehovah’s Witnesses). Former
internees have reported Jehovah’s Witnesses being beaten, threatened
with execution, stuffed with dirt in their mouths, buried in the ground
up to their necks, deprived of food or water, forced to stand in
latrines with waste water, and tied up naked outside in barbed wire
without food or water until fainting (Ros 80, 101, 112, 193; Cabrera 63,
71, 197; Former). Llovio, who was sent to the UMAP camps for over a year
from early 1966 to June 1967 for accusations of corruption and later
became a camp doctor, witnessed first-hand the physical abuse some
internees received (Llovio 159, 160, 167). At one camp, Llovio saw a
young Jehovah’s Witness hung by his hands from the top of a flagpole.
Llovio lowered the man and treated his hands, which he described as “raw
and bloody … numb and purplish” (153–54). For one afternoon, Llovio was
sent to provide medical care to the Malesar unit, a camp for
homosexuals. There, Llovio described the physical condition of the
internees as “deplorable” (157). As a doctor, he treated patients whose
bodies were covered with insect bites and others who had bruises left
over from beatings. The internees Llovio treated at the homosexual camp
told him that many of their privileges, such as receiving visitors and
mail, would be arbitrarily suspended. In addition, the camp guards
practiced a wide range of abuses: forcing internees to work past sunset,
sending ill internees to work, regularly beating internees while
working, forcing internees to stand at attention all day in the sun, and
making internees stand naked in ditches of camp sewage (Llovio 157,
158). Many camps even had designated punishment cells (Improper Conduct;
Viera; Santiago). For a respite from the camps, many internees mutilated
themselves so they could be transferred to a hospital (Ros 205–8;
Cabrera 192; Blanco 57–58). There also exist accounts of suicide at the
camps. A Catholic internee reported that he saw a gay man hang himself
in the UMAP camps (Cardenal 293). Former internee José Blanco, who was
transferred from the regular SMO to the UMAP for admitting that he
considered the possibility of emigrating from Cuba, also recalled cases
of internees committing suicide in camps not for homosexuals (34, 139).

Former internees have generally described the camp guards as arbitrary,
abusive, and incompetent, but there were exceptions (Former; Blanco 52;
Cabrera 141, 157). One former internee recalled Lieutenant Falcón, who
had been transferred to the UMAP camps after a dispute with a superior,
as a man who was “competent” and “respected everyone and was respected
by everyone” (Ros 88). René Cabrera developed a friendship with one
guard, who asked Cabrera to teach him how to read and even confessed
that he was ashamed of the abuses at the camps (Cabrera 185, 210). As
former internee Alberto Muñoz explained:

Of the officials … there were all types of persons. Some treated us with
respect and consideration. Others certainly admired us and did not fail
to show it. With many of them, we gained friendship. In many
circumstances we had officials who helped us and avoided committing
injustices … but there were also others who acted without the least bit
of sensitivity, making it difficult for us to find any human feelings in
With hundreds of different camps scattered throughout Camagüey,
conditions could range significantly in terms of the quality of food,
beds, and the abusiveness of the guards (Cabrera 167, 169). Conditions
in the camps also changed over time. Several internees have reported
that the quality of the camp food improved and the height of the
barbed-wire fences was substantially reduced after mid-1966 (Cabrera
167, 169; Viera; Blanco 2013; Muñoz).

If former Cuban intelligence agents’ statistics are correct,
approximately 0.75 percent of internees died as a result of the
conditions they endured in the camps. This would mean that there was
roughly one death or suicide at each UMAP camp during a course of
two-and-a-half years. Although the conditions at the UMAP were brutally
inhumane, these figures also reveal that life-threatening torture was
not systematically practiced at the camps. The UMAP camps were a huge
tragedy, but they were not quite “Cuba’s concentration camps.” Sadly,
Cuba already experienced this phenomenon during the Cuban War of
Independence in 1896 when the Spanish government gathered about half a
million civilians into camps called reconcentrados. As a result of the
insurgents and counterinsurgents’ mutual strategies of pillage and
destruction, approximately 10 percent of Cuba’s entire population
perished in the makeshift reconcentrados (Tone 192–224). Unlike their
nineteenth-century forebears, however, UMAP internees were not literally
left to die. The most vital function of the UMAP camps was not to kill
civilians, but to exploit the labor of Cuba’s lacra social (scum of
society) – without any concern for what the human cost might be.

Labor, Economics, and Sugar
In revolutionary 1960s Cuba, there existed a wide spectrum of unpaid
labor funneled toward the state ranging from trabajo voluntario to
coerced labor by political prisoners. Economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago
divides state-sponsored unpaid labor in Cuba into five categories:
overtime in the workplace, work through the Federación de Mujeres
Cubanas (FMC), socialist education in the escuelas de campo17 and the
university, SMO, and “rehabilitative work” performed by political
prisoners (Mesa-Lago 1969, 340). The UMAP camps lie somewhere on the
extreme fringe of this spectrum of coerced, unpaid labor.

The UMAP camps were indeed forced-work camps, but to properly
contextualize the UMAP camps it must be emphasized that state-sponsored
unpaid labor was not the exception but the norm in 1960s Cuba. In 1967,
state-sponsored unpaid labor constituted between 8 to 12 percent of the
labor force and between 1962 and 1967 totaled approximately 1.4 percent
of the national income (Mesa-Lago 1969, 354–55). During these years,
approximately one-third of state-sponsored unpaid labor in Cuba was
coordinated through the workplace, 45 percent through the military, 10
percent through students, 10 percent through the penitentiary system,
and about 2 percent through the FMC (340, 354–55). As early as 1960, the
government “reeducated” un-revolutionary Cubans at a work camp in
Guanahacabibes.18 Revolutionary theory, meanwhile, both elevated the
value of labor and laid down the ideological justifications for Cuba’s
new labor regime.19

During the years of the UMAP, trabajo voluntario was widely employed in
the sugar harvests. According to government publications, over 57,000
unpaid workers participated in the 1965 zafra and over 71,000 in the
1966 zafra (Mesa-Lago 1969, 346). The source does not specify whether
this figure included UMAP internees, but since internees received a
monthly salary the figure most likely only referred to “volunteers.” For
the 1967 zafra, a third of these “volunteers” were recruited from the
services sector and another third from the construction sector, two
industries which at the time were overemploying migrants from el
interior (inland Cuba) (346). The use of trabajo voluntario to offset
economic imbalances in the labor market reveals how revolutionary
economic policies had both ushered in new opportunities for campesinos
(people from the countryside) and resulted in acute agricultural labor
shortages. For the 1963 zafra, the Comisión Nacional Azucarera estimated
that 352,000 cane cutters were needed, but only 260,000 were available
(Pérez 59). The number of professional sugarcane cutters declined from
370,000 in 1958 to just 160,000 in 1964 – a decline of over 60 percent
(59). “How should this problem be solved?” asked one UMAP article from
the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FAR) publication Verde Olivo in
reference to Camagüey’s acute zafra labor shortages (“¿Qué es la UMAP?”
1967). The government’s answer to this daunting economic challenge was
the UMAP.

A range of structural changes in the Cuban economy contributed to Cuba’s
severe agricultural labor shortage. During the 1960s, the labor force
participation rate actually declined because of the emigration of
working-age Cubans, higher school enrollment rates, and liberalized
retirement laws (Mesa-Lago 1981, 188). In addition, Cuba was witnessing
an internal migration from el interior to urban centers. Havana’s
population grew 4.4 percent annually in 1960 and 1961, and 2.1 percent
in 1964 (128). Migrants from el interior found jobs in the army, state
security, police, mass state organizations, and bureaucracy (125). These
new urban residents filled the some 400,000 jobs which were added in the
services sector – mostly in the army and social-services administration
– between 1958 and 1964 (114). Agricultural workers who previously faced
seasonal unemployment due to the economic swings of the zafra now found
stable, yearlong employment through state farms and a guaranteed minimum
wage (125). Seasonal unemployment in agriculture had been virtually
eliminated by rural migration, guaranteed jobs, and overstaffing in
state farms (189). Accompanying these sweeping economic reforms was
lower productivity. A survey of 136 state farms in 1963 found that
employees worked 4.5 to 5 hours a day on average, but still received pay
for 8 hours (125). Lower productivity meant that yet more people had to
be hired to achieve production goals, thereby worsening the labor
shortage even more in a vicious, compounding cycle. Mesa-Lago estimates
that the overall productivity of the agricultural sector in 1965 was
just 78 percent of 1962 productivity levels. By 1965, the productivity
of the industrial sector had declined almost 10 percent since 1962
(134). To make matters worse, Cuba was also witnessing alarming rates of
worker absenteeism (47–49, 157).

Internal migration, overemployment in the urban job market, newfound
economic security for farmers, lower productivity and worker absenteeism
– all of these interlocking factors compounded into a severe shortage of
labor in agriculture. Absent the societal structures of slavery or
capitalism harnessing and exploiting individuals, apparently no one
wanted to cut sugar cane. In turn, the state took on the role of
coercing its citizens to perform labor through the mobilization of
“volunteers,” soldiers, and political prisoners. The astounding
inefficiency of trabajo voluntario, however, meant that it could not
resolve Cuba’s economic woes. For the 1964 coffee harvest, university
student volunteers picked coffee one-fifth as efficiently as salaried
workers (Mesa-Lago 1969, 351). In the 1962–1965 sugar harvests, unpaid
workers cut less than one ton of sugar cane per day while skilled
workers chopped down two to three times that amount (351). Consequently,
the production efficiency of the 1967 sugar harvest was a staggering 22
percent below that of the 1957 harvest (351).

As a result, the Revolution’s economic policies were taking a serious
hit on the island’s most lucrative resource: sugar. Paramount to Cuba’s
entire history, sugar also played a leading role in the history of the
UMAP. When the Revolution’s lavish industrialization plans and efforts
to diversify agriculture failed to materialize, Cuba’s leaders turned to
sugar to move the country forward (Pérez 12–13). In 1963, the Cuban
government developed the Prospective Sugar Industry Plan, which between
1965 and 1970 would implement a series of aggressive development
policies: increasing land dedicated to sugarcane cultivation by 50
percent, planting higher-yield varieties of sugar cane, and setting a
production target of 10 million tons of sugar by 1970 (12–13). The
increased income from sugar sales would help Cuba pay off debts to the
Soviet Union and buy the capital goods needed for industrialization
(12–13). Essential to the success of this plan was economic cooperation
with the Soviet Union. In January 1964, Fidel Castro traveled to Moscow,
where he signed a sugar trade agreement with the Soviet Union. Cuba was
to deliver 24 million tons of sugar between 1965 and 1970 at a price of
6.114 cents per pound – well above world market prices during the late
1960s (Pérez 140, 143; Brunner 55). The income gained from record sugar
harvests and guaranteed prices would finance massive, state-sponsored
industrialization that would fuel the economic growth which would
finally land Cuba into communist paradise (Pérez 12–13). The only thing
standing between Cuba’s ambitions and the Prospective Sugar Industry
Plan was a labor force to actually cut the cane. The UMAP was that key
stepping stone to the prosperous communist future which Cuba’s leaders
were promising.

Throughout the early 1960s, the Cuban Revolution had been fighting to
secure its existence, dealing with the threat of a US invasion and
suppressing thousands of armed counterrevolutionaries in rural Cuba
(Domínguez 1978, 345–46). By 1965, after having finally secured the
Revolution and holding well over 20,000 political prisoners, the state
now proceeded to neutralize those considered potential long-term threats
(253–54). Although technically part of the military, the UMAP was not
designed to tranquilize external, violent enemies but internal, latent
threats: namely, homosexuals and members of civil society whose
loyalties were not wholly dedicated to the Revolution. Unique in that it
targeted not Cubans actively against the regime but Cubans deemed
insufficiently revolucionario, the UMAP camps were the pinnacle of
revolutionary Cuba’s repressive, authoritarian policies.

Internees were not sent to the UMAP only because they were religiosos or
homosexuals. There existed gay Cuban men whose sexuality was an open
secret but were never sent to the camps.20 A Cuban was interned at the
UMAP because they were not adequately integrated into the Revolution and
their membership in a particular social category was enough to render
them contrarrevolucionario (counter-revolutionary) and thereby justify
their internment. The UMAP was as much about political repression as it
was about bigotry.

Achieving security, however, meant paying for a massive, costly
military. In 1963, there were 300,000 soldiers in the military – 10
times as many as in 1958 – and military expenditures accounted for 6.5
percent of the national income (Domínguez 1976, 322). After the
campesino uprisings were finally extinguished in 1965, the military
sought to find economic relevance and professionalize its forces, many
of which were inexperienced or not formally trained (324). There was no
role for the many uneducated or illiterate veterans in the plans for a
modern army. Instead, many of these officers were transferred to the
UMAP camps as a sort of demotion (Llovio 143). As a result, many of the
military personnel assigned to the UMAP camps were illiterate or
functionally illiterate veterans of the 1959 Revolution (Ros 45–46;
Domínguez 1976, 324; Yglesias 280). As a March 1966 article from Verde
Olivo entitled “¿Qué es la UMAP?” explained, the personnel at the camps
were “old members of the Rebel Army” of “intermediate level” and “almost
all of peasant background,” which prepared them for “the difficulties
and characteristics of agricultural work.” The labor harvested through
the SMO would also reduce the economic burden of the military. Promoting
the three-year SMO, Raúl Castro elaborated on the military’s economic
mission in a 1963 government meeting, “If we only want an army, we can
have [the draftees] for two years … [but] because the armed forces
should help in the nation’s economy … [we intend to make] the burden of
military expenditures on our people a bit lighter … we must work as part
of our service, especially in the sugar harvest” (Domínguez 1976, 324).

By neutralizing perceived potential contrarrevolucionarios, creating a
dumping ground for FAR personnel who did not meet the standards of the
modernizing military, and contributing to agricultural production and
thereby reducing the economic costs of the ballooning military, the UMAP
camps simultaneously helped accomplish three distinct goals all
essential to the military’s transition to a professionalized, newly
relevant institution. In this respect, the UMAP was a highly strategic
move by the Cuban military.

Testigos de Jehová
Those interned on grounds of their religious activity probably made up
the largest proportion of UMAP internees, and of them, Jehovah’s
Witnesses were the most severely abused.21 Young, active Catholics were
frequently sent to the UMAP camps and their experiences are very well
represented in the body of published testimony. However, Catholics
comprised just a small fraction of UMAP internees. One Catholic former
internee estimated that just 2,000 Catholics were interned out of a
total of 35,000 internees – just over 5 percent (Cardenal 293).
Protestant religions and sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses22 were viewed
as especially counter-revolutionary because of their historical and
allegedly treasonous connections with the norteamericanos (North
Americans, esp. from the United States). On March 13, 1963, in front of
the University of Havana, Fidel Castro gave a speech where he condemned
the “pseudo-religiosos” whom he called batiblancos: “there are three
principal sects, which are instruments of today’s imperialism, they are:
Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gideons International, and Pentecostals.”23 Later
in the speech, he claimed that “these sects … are directly headed by the
United States … and they are used as agents of the CIA, State
Department, and Yankee policy” (Castro 1963). Since many Protestant
religions in Cuba originated from the United States and many still had
ties with the US, these sects were perceived as un-Cuban and potentially
contrarrevolucionario (Rosado 88, 93, 95, 134–35, 145). In addition, the
resolutely apolitical stance of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which motivates
their resistance to practices ranging from saluting the flag to
fulfilling draft requirements, rendered them the pariah of the
boisterously patriotic and authoritarian Cuban Revolution (Yero 24).
When resistance met resistance at the camps, some of the very worst
abuses unfolded.

In 1938, there were only about one hundred Jehovah’s Witnesses in Cuba.
By 1947, that number had grown to 4,000 and by 1965 there were nearly
20,000 – making them one of the largest organized religions on the
island (Aguirre and Alston 171; Rosado 194). In 1962, the Ministry of
Communication banned the import of Jehovah’s Witness religious
literature and prohibited Jehovah’s Witnesses from using mail for
distributing religious materials (Aguirre and Alston 190). In 1963,
foreign Jehovah’s Witnesses were expelled from Cuba, just one year after
over one hundred Catholic priests had been banished from the island
(Aguirre and Alston 190; Treto 45). That same year, hundreds of
Jehovah’s Witnesses were arrested for assembling without having obtained
a permit from their CDR and hundreds more on account of their
proselytizing activities (Calzon 14; Aguirre and Alston 191). In Pinar
del Río, nearly every Kingdom Hall was shut down and its property
confiscated (Aguirre and Alston 191). In the late 1960s, when there were
incidents of Kingdom Halls and other meeting places being attacked by
mobs with stone, brick, and iron, the government refused to prosecute
the perpetrators (Calzon 14). Numerous propaganda pieces produced by
Granma (Cuba’s state newspaper) and Verde Olivo between 1965 and 1968
stressed the presence of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the UMAP camps, complete
with photos and personal interviews.24 Conversely, of the 11 Verde Olivo
and Granma articles which reference the UMAP camps, not a single one
mentions homosexuals. Since the purpose of the propaganda was to combat
the camps’ poor reputation, representations of gays had to be excluded.

There does not exist any testimony from testigos in the UMAP camps; all
information about their experiences comes from the eyewitness testimony
of other internees. This is not because these former testigo internees
are unknown or have all passed away. Rather, testigos de Jehová have
been extremely hesitant to share their experiences with those who will
publish their testimony. The reasons for this are threefold. Firstly,
upon religious principles Jehovah’s Witnesses tend to shy away from
anything that even remotely relates to government or politics. Secondly,
because conditions for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Cuba have begun to improve
over the past two decades, testigos in the Cuban-exile community do not
wish to publicize any criticisms of the Cuban government which may put
these meager religious liberties at risk.25 Finally, the highly
traumatic experiences of many testigos make it emotionally challenging
for these former internees to open up to outsiders. Jehovah’s Witnesses
were by far the most abused at the camps (Viera). As former internee
Héctor Santiago, who was sent to camps for gay men, emphasized:

With us, they were terrible, but let me tell you the truth, they treat
you like a lady compared to the testigos de Jehová. Oh my god, they
really, really were terrible with them, terrible. The things that they
did to them … horrible, horrible.
Former internee René Cabrera, who was interned for his Catholic
activities, corroborated in his memoir, “The Jehovah’s Witnesses, as
always, were the principal victims of the government’s intention of
those crimes” (97).

Testigos de Jehová were not permitted to receive family visits, were not
granted passes to leave the camps, and did not receive packages or
letters (Cabrera 88, 113; Muñoz). In one instance, a camp guard did not
allow a testigo to see his mother who had come to visit him because he
refused to put on the verde olivo pants which had to be worn for family
visits (Muñoz). When first transferred to the camps, many Jehovah’s
Witnesses refused to participate in any camp activities and many refused
to even wear the camp uniform (Former; Cabrera 59; Muñoz; Blanco 86).
Testigos faced severe punishments for their non-participation, such as
beatings, being buried in the ground up to their necks, or being forced
to stand outside for hours until fainting (Blanco 86; Ros 101, 112, 194;
Cabrera 59–60). However, most Jehovah’s Witnesses began to participate
in camp activities and work after the great deal of coercion they faced
(Cabrera 74). Less strict guards did not force testigos to wear the UMAP
uniform (Former).

Jehovah’s Witnesses experienced a variety of tortures in the UMAP camps.
In addition to the practices explained earlier, at some camps a guard
would take individual Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to wear the UMAP
uniform out into the fields and fire a pistol, pretending to shoot them
while the others were still in earshot. After faking this execution, the
guard would return to the camp and select another Jehovah’s Witness who
refused to put on the uniform. Former internee José Blanco wrote in his
memoir that he did not see even one testigo concede to wear the uniform
in the face of these simulated executions (87). Another common
punishment was forcing testigos to stand in latrines filled with
excrement up to the waist or chest (Blanco 86; Former). At some camps,
guards forced Jehovah’s Witnesses to scoop the sewage from camp ditches
with their bare hands (Blanco 86).

The Cuban government justifies its persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses by
claiming that the sect was part of a scheme orchestrated by the CIA. For
example, in January 1963, the Cuban government released a statement
announcing that it had sabotaged a CIA spy network based in Oriente
province, where they claimed to have found “a large quantity of buried
weapons … 36,000 Cuban pesos and some Jehovah’s Witnesses’ prayer books”
(“Broke CIA Spy Ring,” 1963). In a 1985 interview, Fidel Castro remarked
that “Jehovah’s Witnesses cause problems everywhere … we were highly
sensitive. Threatened by the United States, we needed to apply a strong
defense policy – and we found ourselves faced with a doctrine that
opposed conscription. We didn’t have any trouble over beliefs; rather,
all our problems were over ideas – and you don’t know whether they’re
religious or political” (Borge 186–87).

Seventh Day Adventists
Seventh Day Adventists had a unique relationship with the Revolution and
represent a very different relationship with the UMAP than other
religious minorities. In 1956, there were nearly 5,000 Seventh Day
Adventists in Cuba, with more than half located on the more rural,
eastern end of the island. Oriente, the province where Castro began his
uprising, was also the province with the most Seventh Day Adventists
(Rosado 169). In Oriente, one family of Adventists gave food and shelter
to a band of revolutionaries who were fighting dictator Fulgencio
Batista. Seeing that one of the men had no shirt because he had used it
as a bandage to protect a wound, the father of the household, Argelio
Rosabal, gave the revolutionary his only shirt. That wounded
revolutionary – Ernesto “Che” Guevara – was so moved by the man’s
generosity that Che promised them the construction of a chapel in the
future (which was indeed constructed) (172–74).

In December of 1958, Antillian College, a school ran by Seventh Day
Adventists, fed and took care of wounded soldiers who were fighting in
the Sierra Maestra (172–74). When the first draft for the SMO was
enacted, 70 of the 110 eligible students at Antillian College were
drafted. After asking the government to release some of their students
so that the school could function, the majority of the recruited
Adventists returned to school. Still, the SMO was problematic for
Seventh Day Adventists because it did not make a distinction between
combatants and non-combatants (203). In response, the Seventh Day
Adventist Church created a commission to write a memorandum asking the
government to exempt the remaining 12 Adventists who had been called for
SMO. The memorandum explained the distinction between serving combatant
vs. non-combatant roles, Adventists’ unique Sabbath observance, and
their loyalty to the government. The commission chose four pastors to
deliver the memorandum along with one lay member, Argelio Rosabal – the
same man who had sacrificed his only shirt to Che Guevara in the Sierra
Maestra. Rosabal personally delivered the memorandum to Che, who on
October 28, 1963, sent a letter enclosed with said memorandum to the
head of the Agrarian Reform program, Carlos Rodríguez. In the letter,
Che wrote, “[Argelio Rosabal] is the Adventist I spoke to you about …
you will know how to evade the law, or how to divert my attention”
(203–5). Che Guevara interceded on behalf of his Adventist friend,
Rosabal, for an exception to be created in the SMO for this sect.

Later, it ended up that Adventists would be sent to the UMAP camps, but
sociologist Caleb Rosado stresses that they were sent to the UMAP
“simply … because [they] refused to bear arms [and] there was no other
place to locate them” and not because they were considered lacra social,
as the government regarded other UMAP internees (205–6). Indeed, former
internees have not stressed abuses against Seventh Day Adventists, but
have mentioned the fairer treatment Adventists received in comparison
with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Former internee José Blanco wrote in his
memoir that at one camp there were two Adventists who refused to work on
Saturday but compensated for their quota during the rest of the week.
The lieutenant at the camp did not bother them and allowed them to
fulfill their quota in this manner (Blanco 89). However, Blanco has also
stressed that Adventists received fairer treatment only because they
were the hardest working internees (Blanco 2013). Adventists were
apparently not the only sect granted the right to rest on their
respective Sabbath. In Granma, a member of Gideons International said,
“They allow me to rest on Saturday and work on Sunday” (“Unidades,” 8).
However, like so many other aspects of the UMAP, the relatively better
treatment that Adventists received cannot be generalized for all camps.
At least one former internee recalled seeing Adventists forced to work
on the Sabbath and receive terrible abuse similar to that endured by
Jehovah’s Witnesses (Ros 112).

Through the relationship that some Seventh Day Adventists forged with
revolutionary leaders in the Sierra Maestra, Adventists had a privileged
relationship with the revolutionary government which granted them more
flexibility in their religious activities than most sects. As a result,
Adventists were able to give their direct input to revolutionary leaders
regarding the SMO and thus helped inform what would eventually become
the UMAP policy. Even after the UMAP was closed, Adventists were given
accommodations to allow them to serve in the SMO whereas Jehovah’s
Witnesses were imprisoned (Rosado 206). Crucially, this history
demonstrates that not all sects were sent to the UMAP camps because they
were perceived as contrarrevolucionarios. For Adventists, the UMAP camps
were a way to fulfill the SMO and provide more labor to the state.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, were sent to the UMAP camps
because in the eyes of the state they were contrarrevolucionarios and,
consequently, suffered terrible mistreatment. Seventh Day Adventists,
however, were not associated with the same contrarrevolucionario stigma
and thus were not the target of abuse in the camps.

Outside the camps, Adventists also faced a relatively hospitable
environment. Whereas the number of clergy in most Protestant churches
dropped drastically between 1960 and 1963, the number of Adventist
clergy actually grew over 20 percent (Rosado 193). Between 1960 and
1984, the membership of Seventh Day Adventists grew over 50 percent to
nearly 9,000 members – whereas the number of Catholics, Jews,
Presbyterians and Methodists all faced drastic losses due to emigration,
the expulsion of foreign clerics, and discrimination toward religiously
active citizens (194). Evidence of regular abuse of religious groups
other than testigos is scant. In the memoir Dios No Entra en mi Oficina,
former internee Alberto Muñoz, who was sent to the UMAP as a young
Baptist seminarian, asserted that Christians were treated better in the
camps because “we had earned prestige and we had better relations with
our superiors.”

Although all former inmates have recalled their experiences in the UMAP
as highly negative, not all internees turned against the Revolution as a
result of the abuses in the UMAP – as was the case for a few religiosos.
Nicaraguan Catholic priest and liberation theologian Ernesto Cardenal
met one Catholic who affirmed, “there [in the UMAP camps] I became a
revolutionary” because “in the concentration camp I realized that I
ought not to leave. That to fight to make the Revolution better you have
to be a revolutionary” (Cardenal 292–94). This particular Catholic was
not the only religioso who came out of the UMAP camps wishing to stay on
the island and improve the Revolution. One high-profile former internee
is Jaime Lucas Ortega, who was sent to the UMAP camps as a young
Catholic priest and is currently the archbishop of Havana (Ros 62).
Former internee Raúl Suárez, a Baptist who attended Western Cuba Baptist
Theological seminary, went on to become a member of Cuba’s parliament
and in 1990 secured the right for Christians to assemble in their homes
for religious purposes (Blanco 98; Esqueda 30; Feinberg). A few UMAP
internees left the camps not dejected, but determined to improve the
plight of their patria.26

By the eve of the Revolution, the Abakuá secret society, founded by
slaves in Regla in 1836, had over 130 branches and controlled employment
at ship docks, tobacco factories, and slaughterhouses (Palmié and Pérez
219; Routon 380–81). This mutual-aid secret society was problematic for
the Cuban Revolution for a number of reasons. As its membership was
predominantly black (white members were accepted as early as 1857 and
later Chinese-Cubans also joined (Routon 380–81; Miller 171)) and
working-class (Palmié and Pérez 219), the class-conscious and
race-conscious organization was inherently an artifact of the
capitalist, racist superstructures that the Revolution intended to
destroy. Further, the organization’s significant wield over labor
markets challenged the Revolution’s new state-run economic system. Early
in the Revolution, the government manipulated the Abakuá Society by
playing favorites with individual branches to turn them against each
other (Routon 384). In 1968, 458 Abakuá members were in prison in Havana
alone (384).

Abakuá members were amongst the many individuals sent to the UMAP camps
(Santiago; Izquierdo; Llovio 151; Cabrera 164). Accounts of the UMAP
camps frequently describe “common delinquents” among the inmates, but
many of these accounts may be referencing members of the Abakuá Society,
which has long been associated with criminality (Guerra 2012, 262). For
instance, in one memoir a former UMAP internee wrote that “in the camps
there were also common delinquents. The most well-known was Eleguá who
came to the UMAP from a juvenile correctional facility in Jaruco. Eleguá
… was a young black Abakuá which was why he was the protagonist of the
sad episode” (Blanco 67). Clearly, the former internee conflated
Eleguá’s criminality and his Abakuá membership. Eleguá is introduced as
serving in the UMAP because he is a “delincuente común” (common
delinquent), but the next sentence says that his Abakuá membership was
the reason he was sent to the UMAP. Although some accounts of the UMAP
camps may have conflated criminality and Abakuá membership, it should be
emphasized that some UMAP recruits actually were criminals who had been
transferred from jails where they had been serving time for serious
crimes such as murder and rape (Llovio 12).

Abakuá were not explicitly labeled contrarrevolucionario, but
revolutionary policies still seriously hindered their activities. The
Revolution’s attitude toward the Abakuá initially celebrated the Society
as a unique component of Cuban culture and identity. Early in the
Revolution, the government recognized the Abakuá for their participation
in Cuba’s wars of independence by inviting Abakuá members to a
commemoration ceremony (Guerra 2012, 155). Soon, the expression of
traditions with African heritage, including Santería and Abakuá, became
marginalized by the government. The act of wearing necklaces or shaving
one’s head as part of Santería practices could risk one’s job and the
initiation of children into Santería was banned (Falola 270).
Publications began to portray religions of African heritage as primitive
belief systems at odds with the goals of communism (272).
Representations of African heritage and tradition were not celebrated,
but treated as cultural relics of the past which would eventually
dissolve with the creation of a truly communist society (272).

An article published in the magazine El militante comunista the very
summer that the UMAP camps were closed expressed these same
condescending attitudes toward Abakuá. The majority of the article gives
a thorough history of the Abakuá in a non-politicized manner, but
concludes by urging the end of the Society: “enough with remembering the
leopard-men, who have served as the themes of literature and
sensationalist film” (“La sociedad secreta Abakuá,” 36–45). The author
explained that the Abakuá Society is obsolete because “in our socialist
society … mutual-aid societies are not necessary. The revolutionary
state, which is today the people, jealously guards the security and
well-being of all citizens of the country” (44–45). The initiation of
young people into Abakuá is derided as “filling heads with reactionary
obscurantism, teaching customs and traditions, which, sooner or later,
will lead them to a clash with the authorities and with the rest of
society” (44–45). The article ends by forecasting that the Abakuá will
disappear in the “development of the revolutionary process” (44–45).
Representations of African heritage in the early years of the
Revolution, although sometimes giving a voice to Afro-Cubans for the
first time through theater and music, ultimately never treated
African-derived traditions as truly legitimate elements of Cuban
culture, but as relics of the past which would fade in the march for
communist progress.

These condescending attitudes toward Abakuá were reflected in the
government’s hindering of their day-to-day practices. In the mid-1960s,
a special permit was required to authorize religious ceremonies (Falola
275). The application process required submitting a list of the
attendees one month in advance and an explanation of why the event
needed to be held. These restrictions caused so much difficulty for some
Abakuá members that during the 1960s some ceremonies ceased for years
(275). The Revolution’s attitudes toward Abakuá and the over-regulation
of their activities reveal that race still mattered in revolutionary
Cuba. The patronizing discourse of the Revolution, led almost entirely
by white men, against the African-derived, predominantly black Abakuá
reinforced existing racial hierarchies under the guise of “communist
progress.” As the case of the Abakuá demonstrates, traditions of African
heritage were imagined as primitive and incompatible with an advanced,
communist society. As a result, since one’s local CDR president helped
determine who was sent to the UMAP camps, the racist prejudices of
individual CDR members probably contributed to many Abakuá members’
placement in the UMAP camps instead of the regular SMO.

A gendered interpretation of the UMAP cannot exclude the presence of
Abakuá at the camps, long notorious for being the site of Cuba’s most
extreme gender policing. Masculinity is an essential component of the
Abakuá Society, a brotherhood that aims to foster a correct manliness
amongst its members. Effeminate or homosexual men can never join the
Society (Leiner 22). As the organization’s oft-repeated criterion for
the proper member states: “A man is not just one who is not homosexual,
but also one who reflects the purest dignity of a human being through
being hard-working, fraternal, happy, rebellious against injustice, and
a follower of the Moral Code established by the founders of Abakuá”
(“Sociedad Secreta Abakuá” 2013).

The Revolution viewed Abakuá as a threat because its brand of
masculinity was considered overly aggressive and degrading to women
(Routon 384). The 1968 article in El militante comunista challenges the
masculinity of the Abakuá in exactly this manner, arguing that they
fostered a machismo detrimental to society:

It is very important the role that ‘machismo’ plays, mistaken concept,
primitive and twisted of manliness, in the ñañiguismo [another term for
Abakuá]. It considers the woman a beast of burden and an instrument of
pleasure. They cultivate revenge for allegations of real offenses to
manliness or to religion … These acts of vengeance, curious thing if one
thinks about machismo, are always carried out in a treacherous and
cowardly way… It is not necessary to stress the attraction these things
have for lumpen [underclass scum]. Innumerable people have committed
bloody acts in the name of Abakuá, uncountable the unpunished crimes
thanks to their false concept of manliness and companionship. (“La
sociedad secreta Abakuá,” 44–45)
Here, the machismo of the Abakuá is portrayed as a violent, misogynist
extreme of the true hombría (manliness) of the Revolution. In this
manner, the Cuban Revolution used the rhetoric of gender policing
against those on either end of the traditional masculinity spectrum,
both those who were insufficiently masculine and those who were
excessively machista (chauvinistic). The article’s use of the term
lumpen to describe Abakuá – a term which referred to a web of different
types of individuals including vagos, homosexuals, enfermitos,27 etc. –
further links the Abakuá to the government’s global gender policing
goals (Ros 9; Lumsden 71; Castro 1966). On both ends of the spectrum,
the Revolution reinterpreted certain gendered behavior as detrimental to
the goals of a communist society.
During the 1960s the Cuban Revolution severely and systematically
restricted gay citizens’ rights. Gay people were not allowed to teach,
go abroad, join the military, attend university, practice the fine arts,
work in the press, or join the communist party (Lumsden 76; Young 28;
Santiago; Salas 160–61). In the university, students were purged for
accusations of homosexuality in public trials attended by hundreds of
students. Trials for accused homosexuals had the same procedures as
those for accused counterrevolutionaries (Improper Conduct; Guerra 2012,
247). Employment of antisociales and homosexuals was regulated through
one’s expediente, a government dossier on every citizen which is
reviewed for hiring (Lumsden 76). Government documents such as
expedientes and military IDs contained symbols which marked one as an
antisocial or a homosexual (Young 38; Santiago). Héctor Santiago, for
instance, was barred from returning to his work in theater after leaving
the UMAP because his expediente indicated his antisocial status
(Santiago). Even in the legal system, gays were excluded. Court cases
handled through popular tribunals (a localized legal system for minor
cases implemented in 1963) were all held publicly, except for certain
cases involving a woman’s “honor,” juvenile delinquents, or homosexuals
(Domínguez 1978, 256). In a communist country aspiring for
classlessness, gays were an underclass.

Historians have characterized the UMAP as the pinnacle of the Cuban
Revolution’s gender policing (Guerra 2010, 268). However, the vagueness
of this academic catchphrase lends itself to misinterpretation and fails
to fully describe the event of the UMAP camps. Firstly, not all the gay
men sent to the UMAP exhibited queer or effeminate behavior. Men
interned at camps for homosexuals could be effeminate, masculine, or
whatever (Santiago; Viera). Although classical machismo prioritizes
gender performance, what specifically preoccupied the Cuban Revolution
was its citizens’ sexual behavior. As one former internee emphasized,
“What mattered was homosexual sexuality” (Santiago).

Secondly, the Revolution’s repressive policies against homosexuals did
not merely police the gender of queers, but of the entire population.
For example, the Revolution’s rhetoric of gender policing justified
repression against Abakuá because they projected a deviantly machista
masculinity. In this way, people on either end of the spectrum of
gender-normative behavior were at risk of being sent to the UMAP camps.
Moreover, straight and/or gender-conforming individuals were also
impacted by the state-sponsored campaign against homosexuality because
they now had to fear that an agent of the state – as close as the CDR up
the street or a fellow classmate – may accuse them of homosexuality. As
a young, self-identified heterosexual and revolutionary Cuban explained,
“The persecution of homosexuals … is hateful and unnerving. Not that
we’re homosexuals. But there’s always the fear that they’ll think you
are, because of the long hair or because you’re an artist or a poet …
It’s all repression” (Cardenal 21). Indeed, the very point of the
state’s gender policing was to enforce machista norms amongst all
members of society. All men and women had to check their own gender
performance and expression to ensure that their masculinity or
femininity was never questioned, lest they face the state’s
consequences. Although homosexual men were the direct targets of the
Revolution’s repressive policies, Cuba’s gender policing was truly
directed toward the whole population – to intimidate all Cubans into
adopting ever more machista gender norms to achieve the realization of
the illusive hombre nuevo (the “New Man”) who would usher in the
communist future.28

Thirdly, describing the event of the UMAP as gender policing implies
that gay men were its principal victims. To the contrary, numerous
former internees from camps not for gay men have insisted that
homosexuals only numbered somewhere between 10 to 15 percent of all
internees (Blanco 79; Cabrera 13; Muñoz). Another internee from a camp
not for gay men reported that up to one-fourth of the internees at his
camp were homosexual (Viera). Since gay men were segregated, however,
testimony from former internees cannot reveal the overall proportion of
homosexuals in the UMAP. Consequently, these figures are most likely
underestimates because they are only based on the number of internees
seen transferred from camps not for gay men to camps for homosexuals and
thus fail to include those who may have been sent directly to camps for
gays (via government raids of the streets of Havana, for instance).
Although not strictly accurate, these estimates remind us of the larger
truth that gay men were only one group amongst a diverse gamut of internees.

Finally, the term “gender policing” obscures one of the central purposes
behind the UMAP, which was not “policing” the gender of gay men, but
actually eradicating homosexuality. After having waged a highly
effective anti-prostitution campaign during the early and mid-1960s
(Salas 100–102), the Cuban Revolution next attempted to eliminate
homosexuality. In addition to the social and political stigmatization of
homosexuality, the medicalization of homosexuality heavily informed the
“treatment” gay men received in the UMAP.29 A 1965 study in Havana to
determine the cause of effeminacy in boys concluded that both
environmental factors and inherited characteristics contributed to male
effeminacy. Certain children, then, were born prone to developing
effeminate and eventually homosexual behaviors, but only if “triggered”
by certain environmental factors. The study urged that the prevention of
male effeminacy and homosexuality “can only be done through the organs
and mechanisms of education at the disposition of the State” (Leiner
39–40). Steeped in this medicalized understanding, it was believed that
homosexuality was preventable. Under this rationale, homosexuals would
be banned from most work involving the public. In 1965, the Ministry of
Health published a report on homosexuality which found that there was no
known biological cause of homosexuality. The report concluded that
homosexuality must be a learned behavior and urged that “research as
well as prevention must start very early in order to influence the
mechanisms of this learning process” (33). As part of these efforts in
the 1960s, boys perceived as effeminate or prone to homosexuality were
transferred to special schools called “Yellow Brigades” where they were
taught to engage in gender-normative behaviors such as playing sports
and practicing self-defense (Salas 164; Leiner 34). Again, the ideology
behind the Yellow Brigades was rooted in the idea that homosexuality is
a medical illness and social ill which the state must seek to contain.
In parallel, gay men were segregated at the UMAP camps as part of the
government’s efforts to contain the perceived contaminant before it
“infected” society.

During this same period, efforts were made in Cuba to develop cures for
homosexuality. In 1962, the director of La Revista del Hospital
Psiquiátrico published an article in the Revista Cubana de Medicina
entitled “Una nueva modalidad del tratamiento de la homosexualidad”
(Marqués). In the study, Dr. Eduardo Gutiérrez Agramonte developed
treatments inspired by Czech researcher Kurt Freund, including
electroshock therapy and hormone treatments. In Pavlovian experiments,
patients were administered positive or negative stimuli while being
asked to select between images of nude men and women (Marqués).

Similar medical experiments were researched and conducted at the UMAP
camps. While Llovio was stationed at the Camagüey Staff Headquarters to
work as a doctor, his roommate was Lieutenant Luis Alberto Lavandeira, a
veteran of the Cuban Revolution (Llovio 171). Lavandeira and researchers
from the University of Havana went to camp Malesar to research
“rehabilitating” homosexual internees. Lavandeira told Llovio, who had
been assigned as a representative for the project, that homosexuality
could be cured, but, “There is only one medicine and we have it at hand.
It is Marxist philosophy, accompanied by hard labor that will force them
into manly consciousness and gestures” (171). The inmates were
uncooperative, however, and simply guffawed at Lavandeira’s questions
regarding their sex lives. The project was soon canceled and Lavandeira
was transferred to work at a psychiatric ward. Former gay internee Jorge
Ronet wrote in his memoir that “foreign psychiatrists came with
translators and we were forced to receive injections of unknown
substances” (53–54). To avoid undergoing any further medical
experiments, Ronet purposefully misbehaved so he would be transferred to
another camp (53–54). In another possible reference to these
experiments, a letter written by an internee in the UMAP states that a
fellow internee was taken to a camp for the mentally ill after seeing a
psychiatrist.30 Héctor Santiago, a former UMAP internee who was sent to
camps for homosexuals, further described the medical experiments to
“cure” homosexuality:

They thought they could apply that [Pavlovian experiments] to the gays.
Then they would give you an insulin shock and an electric shock while
they showed you photos of nude men and afterwards they gave you, while
they gave you food, gave cigars, they showed films of heterosexual sex.
They thought like that they could … convert you into a heterosexual …
Sometimes they left you without food and water for three days and then
they showed you photos of nude men and later they gave you food when
they showed you the photos of the women. If you are not diabetic, and
they give you an insulin shot, it shocks you, you urinate and defecate
and vomit … Electric shock … you lost your memory and two or three days
after you don’t know who you were and you are catatonic and you cannot
The therapy would be repeated until “they think they were successful …
after the treatments they interviewed you and then they asked you about
women and if you were having relations with men … you were smart and you
learned that if you say yes to everything that they asked you, they stop
the whole thing” (Santiago). In the film Conducta Impropia, Cuban poet
Heberto Padilla also discussed these Pavlovian experiments in the UMAP.
Santiago reported that the government realized these abusive medical
experiments were ineffective and terminated them after six to eight
months. Unfortunately, because of the scarcity of testimony by gay
former internees, generalizations cannot be made about the exact nature
of these medical experiments or how frequently they were carried out.
However, medical experiments of some sort were certainly conducted in
the UMAP camps with the intention of “curing” homosexuality.

Ultimately, the Revolution never transformed the homosexual into the
hombre nuevo and internees at the UMAP persisted in their
non-gender-conforming behavior. While working as a doctor at one camp,
Llovio overheard a lieutenant shouting angrily about the unauthorized
activities of the internees: “Last night, they had a party in the
barracks … [for] a goddamn wedding … they decorated the barracks … It
looked just like a church … with a wedding dress and everything!” (157).
During a hurricane in 1966, one barrack of pájaros (gay men) pulled off
a fashion show, transforming their verde olivo uniforms into bikinis
(Blanco 76). Alberto Muñoz remembered that at camp Laguna Grande he saw
“the pride with which the majority boasted of their homosexuality.”
Unsurprisingly, there was also plenty of sexual activity at the UMAP
camps. Muñoz recalled that in his camp the area behind the bathrooms was
“the meeting place of the homosexuals.” In addition, some UMAP officials
were removed and put to trial for having sexual relations with the
internees (Blanco 75; Muñoz). As one gay former internee put it, “They
put all the homosexuals together, and what they do, they fuck with the
guards … At night, the gays escape and they fuck with the soldier, they
fuck with the peasant, they fuck with everybody” (Santiago).

The Legacy of the UMAP
During Canadian journalist Paul Kidd’s startling 1966 encounter in rural
Cuba, he managed to enter the barracks, take photos, and even speak with
internees. Kidd, the sole third-party source regarding the UMAP camps,
described what he witnessed as “forced-labor camp[s]” and a source of
“almost slave” labor (Kidd 1969, 24). In the exile community, the UMAP
camps are similarly remembered as Cuba’s “concentration camps.”
Historian Enrique Ros’s book on the UMAP camps echoes an oft-repeated
maxim amongst the former internees: “The UMAP, where there was never a
human gesture” (231). Interestingly, one former internee responded to
this dictum in his memoir by regarding it as hyperbole, explaining that
although he respects “the judgment of the author, who like everyone,
certainly suffered very much, my experience was different … I met
respectable officials who, from their point of view, tried to accomplish
their work in the best way possible … at the same time I met others …
far from humane” (Muñoz). Clearly, the experiences of UMAP internees
resist broad generalizations and cannot conform to a single,
concentration-camp narrative. Instead, the varied experiences of UMAP
internees reflect how the camps were a vital component of the Cuban
Revolution’s diverse economic, social, and political goals. What ties
together the narrative of the UMAP is a revolution bent on achieving a
fantastical, communist utopia – a Cuba where record zafras catapulted
the economy into abundant prosperity, a Cuba where everyone’s allegiance
was dedicated exclusively to the Revolution, and a Cuba where no one was
homosexual. Forty-two years after the closure of the camps, Fidel Castro
himself finally decided their legacy in response to an interview
question regarding the UMAP: “Yes, there were moments of great
injustice, a great injustice!”31


1 Paul Kidd, “Cuba Expels Reporter,” Edmonton Journal, September 10,
1966, 1.

2 Ibid.

3 Enrique Ros, La UMAP: El Gulag Castrista (Miami: Ediciones Universal,
2004), 9, 254, 278.

4 Lillian Guerra, “Gender policing, homosexuality and the new patriarchy
of the Cuban Revolution, 1965–70,” Social History 35.3 (2010): 268; Ian
Lumsden, Machos, Maricones, and Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), 55–81.

5 The term revolucionario connotes a patriotic Cuban communist who
supports the government and Fidel Castro.

6 José Caballero Blanco, Una Muerte A Plazos (2nd Edition. Lexington:
D’Har Services, 2008), 155; Ros, La UMAP, 15; Emilio Izquierdo,
interview with author, December 2012.

7 Ros, La UMAP, 13; Jorge Domínguez, Armies and politics in Latin
America (Holmes & Meier, 1976), 324.

8 Note that the 35,000 figure is an estimate of the total number of
internees. The number of internees at any given moment may have been
lower. The reason for the discrepancy between the total number of
internees and the number of internees at a given moment is that
internees had to be replaced due to escapes, medical discharges, deaths,

9 Due to the difficulty of researching this topic in Cuba, this
assertion is not a quantitatively backed claim but an educated guess
based on the author’s survey of available testimony.

10 “Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción,” Granma, April 14,
1966, 8; “Vacaciones en la UMAP por fiestas de fin de año,” Granma,
December 13, 1966, 1;“Vacaciones desde mañana a los de UMAP,” Granma,
December 20, 1966, 5; José Armas, “En los cañaverales,” Verde Olivo,
April 17, 1966, 8; Carlos Selva Yero, “Operación: Testigos de Jehovah,”
Verde Olivo, April 23, 1966, 22–24; José Armas, “Ascensos en las UMAP,”
Verde Olivo, June 12, 1966, 31–33; P. E. Cabrera, “Unidades Militares de
Ayuda a la Producción: Un recorrido,” Verde Olivo, March 19, 1967,
34–38; Luis Pavón, “¿Qué es la UMAP?” Verde Olivo, March 27, 1967; “Las
Brigadas de Las UMAP,” Verde Olivo, May 15, 1967, 38; P. E. Cabrera, “Un
millón en 75 días,” Verde Olivo, May 7, 1967, 19–21; José Armas,
“Premios en las UMAP,” Verde Olivo, October 30, 1967, 14–16; Alberto
González Muñoz, Dios No Entra en mi Oficina, (4th Edition, 2012), eBook.

11 “Hablemos de ‘Comentemos’” Mella, October 1, 1964, 14; “Los Vagos se
disfrazan de enfermitos,” Mella, October 5, 1967, 9.

12 The author uses “men” in lieu of a gender-neutral term to emphasize
that, in all likelihood, nearly all internees were male. All available
testimony from male, former UMAP internees concurs that all UMAP
internees were male. The fact that the UMAP was technically part of the
SMO further strengthens the argument that nearly all former UMAP
internees were male. Historian Lillian Guerra, however, reports that
women were also interned at work camps. See Visions of Power in Cuba,
254. For more testimony regarding women in work camps, see Ocho Amigos,

13 “Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción: Un recorrido,” Verde
Olivo, March 19, 1967, 37; “Las Brigadas de Las UMAP,” Verde Olivo. May
15, 1967, 38.

14 Dichrostachys cinerea, a weed in Cuba.

15 As described, the político was the camp official in charge of
politically educating UMAP internees.

16 Blanco, Una Muerte, 56; Real Academia Española, “cordel,”

17 Schools where students split their time between learning in class and
working in agriculture.

18 Jorge G. Castañeda, Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara (New
York: Knopf, 1997), 178. In addition to camp Guanahacabibes, another
interesting precursor to the UMAP was the trial of Marcos Rodríguez. In
1964, Rodríguez (better known as “Marquitos”) was found guilty of
treason and executed. Since Rodríguez’s peers perceived him as gay, the
transcripts from the trial provide insight into how Cubans connected
being homosexual with being un-revolutionary. See The Taming of Fidel
Castro by Maurice Halperin.

19 See Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s “Socialism and Man in Cuba.”

20 Alfredo Guevara, former head of the Cuban film institute ICAIC, is a
common example. Lumsden, Machos, 64;Santiago, interview with author,
September 8, 2013.

21 As before, this assertion is not a quantitatively backed claim but an
educated guess based on the author’s survey of available testimony.

22 Jehovah’s Witnesses should not be lumped together with Protestant
sects. From the perspective of Cubans, however, Protestant religions and
sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses from the United States all seemed

23 “Discurso pronunciado por el comandante Fidel Castro Ruz,” March 13,

24 “Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción,” Granma; “¿Qué es la
UMAP?” Verde Olivo; Yero, “Operación: Testigos de Jehovah,” Verde Olivo.

25 “Cuba: Information on the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses by the
authorities,” Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada,; “Testigos de Jehová ganan
espacios en Cuba,” Cubanet, December 28, 1998, accessed June 23, 2013,; “Celebran asambleas
Testigos de Jehová,” Cubanet, December 7, 2006,

26 The author does not represent these cases as brainwashing because
that would imply that the camp político played a prominent role in the
UMAP. Testimony from former internees, however, has neither emphasized
the role of the político nor characterized the UMAP as an instance of

27 A person who is considered un-revolutionary because they adopt
clothing styles of capitalist countries. See In the Fist of the
Revolution, 203–4.
28 Hombre nuevo refers to a term Che Guevara used to describe the
communist man of the future. See Che’s “Socialism and Man in Cuba.” For
analysis of how the concept of the “New Man” was incompatible with
homosexuality, see Social Control and Deviance in Cuba, 165.

29 It must be stressed that the association of homosexuality with
capitalism also played an extremely important role in rationalizing the
Revolution’s policies against homosexuals. See Social Control and
Deviance in Cuba, 165–66 and Machos, 65.

30 Letter from unidentified former internee to Héctor Santiago, dated
March 3, 1966. Part of the “Héctor Santiago Papers” available at the
University of Miami Cuban Heritage Collection,

31 Carmen Saade, “Soy el responsable de la persecución a homosexuales
que hubo en Cuba: Fidel Castro,” La Jornada, August 31, 2010,


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Source: Vol 14 No 2 Tahbaz –

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