Lessons from an American in Castro’s Gulag
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.
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