Why not to let Cuba off hook

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For many Americans, Cuba remains a troubling conundrum. On the one hand, it is one of the last lingering outposts of communism. It is an egregious offender against human rights. Surely this is a country to be shunned, to be kept in political isolation?

On the other hand, its economy is in ruins. Its former Russian mentor is uncaring. Fidel Castro, its aging Marxist leader, is internationally inconsequential, and perhaps soon to pass from the scene. Is not this a time for overtures to those who might build a new Cuba?

As Americans ponder the choice between carrot and stick, new light has been thrown on an old and troubling chapter in US-Cuban relations - the torture of American prisoners-of-war in Vietnam by Cuban interrogators.

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Up to 2,000 Cubans were in North Vietnam during the Vietnam war helping the Hanoi regime. New research, and the release of hitherto classified information, reveals that at least one small Cuban unit engaged in a merciless campaign of physical torture and psychological pressure against a selected group of 20 captured American fliers in 1967 and 1968.

It was known as the "Cuban program." The torture took place at a prison camp named the "Zoo," near Cu Loc, on the southwestern edge of Saigon.

Leader of the interrogation team was a man more than six feet tall, weighing some 180 pounds, nicknamed "Fidel." His assistant was nicknamed "Chico." Both spoke fluent English. In time they were joined by a third man nicknamed "Pancho." Fidel enjoyed considerable stature with the North Vietnamese. While the camp commandant arrived daily on a bicycle, Fidel came in a sedan driven by a Vietnamese officer.

The torture is documented in a new book, "Honor Bound," and corroborated by a series of Miami Herald interviews with former POWs. The book is a scholarly one, an official publication of the office of the secretary of Defense, which doesn't necessarily endorse the authors' views. The authors are Stuart Rochester, a defense department historian, and Frederick Kiley, an Air Force veteran who teaches at the Air Force Academy.

The torture documented is horrific. POWs were beaten unconscious with strips cut from tires. Guards kicked and battered them, breaking bones, jaws, teeth, ear-drums, ribs. Some had their thumbs wired together. Some endured water torture. One died of head injuries. All eventually "surrendered" to their interrogators, meaning they all agreed to perform acts of submission.

Analyzing the shifting from physical torture to psychological pressure, some of the POWs believe the Cuban interrogations were part of an experimental program designed to test the most effective means to make men break.

Others among those tortured think the Cubans were trying to reduce them to "show-cases," who would do the Cubans' bidding even after release. Other sources suggest the Cubans were part of a training program.

Many of the details of this Cuban operation have been kept confidential by government agencies until now, but have recently been revealed in documents declassified by the Defense Department's Prisoner of War, Missing Personnel Office (DPMO).

After the war, US intelligence agencies launched an intensive campaign to identify Fidel, without success. In 1979 one of the POWs involved was shown pictures of a Cuban education ministry official who had just toured Harvard and MIT and returned to Havana. The DPMO identified the visitor as Fernando Vecino Alegret, today Cuba's minister of higher education, a former military specialist known to have visited North Vietnam around 1967.

The former POW who saw the photos told the Miami Herald: "If you replaced some hair, and took 25 pounds off, it could have been this guy."

The new revelations are a reminder that any dialogue with Cuba should involve careful US scrutiny of those with whom we conduct that dialogue.

*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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