May 29, 1995



DIARY OF A SURVIVOR Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women’s Prison By Ana Rodriguez and Glenn Garvin St. Martin’s. 325 pp. $22.95 “Every woman who writes is a survivor,” says Tillie Olsen in her book “Silences.” For Olsen, the survivor is she who bears witness to those who did not survive, who passes on ways of surviving and tells of her special circumstances. This view of a survivor aptly describes Ana Rodriguez, a medical student who was serving a 30-year prison sentence in a Cuban women’s prison when Olsen’s book was published in 1978.


Olsen focuses on literary silence; in Rodriguez’s case, it was political silence: A totalitarian regime attempted to stifle her political views and halt her work in the anti-Castro underground. She resisted and, during the 19 years she spent in prison, consistently defied the authorities’ brutal and at times comically inept efforts to break her will. Now, 34 years after her initial arrest, Rodriguez makes her powerful voice heard in a compelling book, “Diary of a Survivor.”

With the help of Miami Herald writer Glenn Garvin, Rodriguez tells her story effectively. She poignantly shares the events leading to her arrest and the ordeals of her imprisonment. Because of her refusal to be politically “rehabilitated,” she endured beatings, isolation periods in blackout cells, long stretches without family visits or medical assistance, and the deprivation of most human rights. She vividly describes the ways human beings survive in the face of great cruelty and brutality, unfortunately a topic as timely today as it was in 1961, when she entered the prison.

This is not the first book to offer an intimate perspective on political imprisonment in Cuba, but it is rare in its portrayal of a female prisoner’s experience. Through Rodriguez’s story, we learn about others who likewise resisted reeducation: young students, wives, widows, grandmothers and mothers, some even with their infants inside the cells. We also meet vicious, predatory female criminals, often used to intimidate the political prisoners, and phaclanas, young rebel prostitutes. Along with the female prison guards, these women present a spectrum of the worst and best in human nature. In the end, the book speaks to women’s ability to persevere by establishing remarkable systems of cooperation and support even in the most appalling circumstances.

Rodriguez’s story begins when she was a student actively involved in the fight against the Batista dictatorship. At first, she welcomed Castro’s revolution. As she witnessed the militarization of Cuban society and the transformation of neighbors into informants, she began to question her loyalty. The turning point, she writes, was watching Castro’s kangaroo-court revolutionary tribunals, where trials ended consistently with televised firing squads (even though the Cuban Constitution prohibited capital punishment). Soon after, Rodriguez began working against Castro the same way she had worked against Batista. She distributed propaganda, carried clandestine messages and participated in other support work for urban guerrilla groups. This part of her account gives us a unique glimpse into the thoughts and actions of disillusioned youths involved in Havana’s urban underground in the early ’60s, most of whom eventually landed in prison.

After her arrest, court trial and sentence to a 30-year jail term, she was repeatedly transferred from prison to prison. In spite of beatings and deprivations, she refused to wear the same uniforms as the common criminals, initiated hunger strikes, burned down a jail and even escaped twice from maximum-security prisons. She turned herself in after her second escape. After the initial frenzy of the escape, she confronted the reality that the entire island had become a prison.

One of the most saddening chapters describes how she came to this realization. As early as 1967, during her first escape, Rodriguez encountered a broken Havana. As she wandered throughout the city, moving every few days from house to house, she was shocked to find Cuba worse off than she had imagined it. “During my months on the street, I had seen a strange, disturbing paradox. No one believed in the Revolution anymore. . . . Yet no one was resisting, not even passively. {Castro} had broken Cuba. The streets outside were like those of a foreign country to me.”

After her release, as a result of negotiations

 with the Carter administration, Rodriguez was given an exit visa for the United States. “As the plane {which was full of former political prisoners, all males except two} passed over the island’s edge, dozens of the men broke into tears. My eyes were dry. I was thinking of a statistic: In 1959, when Castro took over, Cuba had four prisons. As we flew away, there were two hundred.” In revealing the disturbing details of her imprisonment, Rodriguez lets us inhabit her world. For years, people denied the stories of men and women like her. “Diary of a Survivor” reminds us that no totalitarian regime can fully silence its people. There are always survivors. Rodriguez is one worth listening to. The reviewer, a Cuban-born poet and essayist, is the author of “Cuban American Writers: Los Atrevidos” and of the forthcoming “A Century of Cuban Writers in Florida.” CAPTION: In a Cuban prison, Ana Rodriguez defied efforts to break her will.