Rafael Lima’s film offers a look inside Cuba’s notorious prisons

A journey back into hell

ike most adults, Rafael Lima can recall quite vividly the games and toys he used to play with as a small child. He also remembers something most children, or even adults for that matter, never experience: the sight and smell of death.

For Lima, it is a memory permanently etched into his consciousness: a body covered by a white, blood-stained bed sheet. Dogs and chickens licking the blood from blades of grass. Men confined to bird-cage sized cells, waiting for death.

That was the “hell on earth” an 8-year-old Lima would visit three times a week at Cuba’s La Cabana prison, which, along with El Presidio, were notorious in the first years of Fidel Castro’s revolution for the execution of countless political prisoners. Lima’s father and two uncles were prisoners of both jails, pilots during the Batista regime who were tried by Castro and sentenced to death.

“What I remember of the prisons is everything—every sight, sound, smell, taste, and fear,” says Lima, now a lecturer in the Motion Pictures and Video Film program at the University of Miami School of Communication. “My mother and I would go visit them at La Cabana three days a week. The guards would execute prisoners at daybreak, and they would always let the visitors in through the same entrance. A few yards to the right would be the place where a firing squad had just shot someone. And there would be a corpse lying on the ground.

“It was terrifying for a little boy,” Lima recalls, “walking past death on your right into a 17th century Spanish fort with dungeons that were housing your father and two uncles. Everything is burned into my memory.”

Lima’s father and uncles never faced Castro’s firing squads, his uncles having their sentences commuted after 23 years behind bars, and his father escaping jail and being smuggled out of Cuba by the Brazilian embassy.

Their stories and those of thousands of other political prisoners who endured Castro’s jails and died at the hands of his firing squads have been told in Lima’s one-hour documentary Presidio: The Trip Back.

Filmed with a digital home video camera and produced with the support of Edward Pfister, dean of the School of Communication, and Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, the documentary includes clandestine footage of the now barren La Cabana and El Presidio prisons, which have been the subject of books and human-rights reports but until now had never before been filmed.

Dark dungeons, prison cells into which no light penetrated, a bullet-hole riddled wall against which thousands of prisoners were shot—Lima’s documentary blends his own footage with archival film to recount the torture, abuse, and executions of scores of political prisoners.

He shot the video during trips to Cuba in 1998 and 1999 when he traveled to the island as a journalist under the guise of working on a story about the island’s diving resorts.

Both prisons, parts of which have been converted into tourist attractions, have been out of service for more than two decades, but access to the non-tourist parts is prohibited. Lima took several risks to get inside, sneaking behind a delivery truck that had driven through an open gate at one of the prisons and jumping a wall at the other.

He took the risks because he needed to go back to deal with what he could not handle emotionally as a child. “It’s like going back to the scene of a fatal car accident. You stand in the place where it happened, you touch the ground where it happened, and in some way you are able to process what you could not process in that moment of terror.”

Taking risks is something that isn’t new to Lima. As a reporter for CNN and the Associated Press, he has covered wars in Santo Domingo, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and the Falkland Islands. Being witness to the unfortunate horror of civilian casualties is the hardest thing about covering a war, he says. “You never get used to women and children being killed, the actual senselessness and brutality of war. When you see how opposing, warring armies brutally maim each other, you never forget.”

Neither will Lima forget the experience of returning to the prisons that once held his father and uncles. El Presidio is a personal journey not only for him but also for thousands of other Cuban exiles because of the fact that so many people have passed through Castro’s prisons, by some estimates as much as a third of the country’s population.

Lima, who has written screenplays for Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers, Disney, HBO, CBS, and ABC, isn’t finished telling his story. His next project: a documentary and oral history on the men who survived Castro’s prisons. He already has begun to interview many of those survivors, men in their 70s and 80s who endured a living hell. Many of them live in Miami’s Cuban exile community.

“As I’m interviewing these men, they’re telling me stories of when they were in wars against communist governments,” says Lima. “I’ve uncovered a kind of clandestine Cold War army of Cuban exiles, Bay of Pigs trained veterans who have traveled all over the world—Vietnam, Angola, Botswana, the Congo, Nicaragua—to oppose communist regimes. It’s a story that must be told.” Gordon, professor of