Freed Cuban political prisoners give details of life in jail

Boiled plantain-flavored water as soup. A greasy scoop of bland, yellowing beef fat as a side dish. A stew dubbed "the giraffe" because "you had to stretch your neck to find something in it." A hairy heap of ground pig eyes, cheek, ears, and other unidentifiable parts served as a main course.

The meal, nicknamed patipanza, is one of the typical dishes served in Cuban prisons, according to political prisoners freed and expatriated to the Spanish capital under an agreement negotiated by the Roman Catholic Church and the Spanish government.

"They didn't even bother to take the hairs off the animal's skin and it stank," says Mijail Barzaga, 43, who spent seven years in four Cuban prisons.

In the Havana prison El Pitirre, where he spent two years, the food was more edible than in the others, Barzaga said, but the portions of rice, watery picadillo and pea stew served to the prisoners kept getting smaller and smaller.

"The guards would steal from our portions, they would steal from the prison ministry to feed their families and to sell in the black market," Barzaga said. "To steal from a man in prison who can't do anything about getting himself nourishment is denigrating -- the lowest point of humanity."

Often there was dirt at the bottom of the boiled concoctions. Other times, worms and bugs in the food.

"Kafka couldn't have written it worse," said Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso, an independent journalist sentenced to 20 years after his arrest in the Black Spring of 2003.

Two of the released prisoners in Spain -- Jose Luis Garcia Paneque and Normando Hernandez -- suffer from life-threatening illnesses due to malnutrition and confinement. So does Ariel Sigler Amaya, a healthy athlete when he was imprisoned in 2003 and now in a wheelchair, his body decimated. Flown from Havana to Miami this week for medical treatment, Sigler is being treated at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

In Madrid, all of the ex-prisoners interviewed by The Miami Herald said they suffer from some type of severe digestive disorder. One is under psychiatric care because he suffered a severe post-traumatic stress episode at the hostel where some of the Cubans are being temporarily housed in an industrial suburb of Madrid.

According to human rights organizations — among them Amnesty International and the United Nations, which have monitored Cuban prisons for decades — conditions have been harsh and inhumane throughout the 51-year-old regime of the Castro brothers.

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