HAVANA – Cuba opened the doors of two penitentiaries to international journalists, hoping to rebut criticism about prison conditions in the weeks before the U.N. human rights body votes on the island's rights record.
The Wednesday visit by international media, limited to the hospital wards of Havana's Combinado del Este (search) for men and the Manto Negro Western Women's Prison (search), was the first such group media visit to Cuban prisons in more than 15 years, authorities said.
The unusual tour through the prisons' iron-barred doors and down its freshly painted halls came two weeks before the United Nations Human Rights Commission (search) is to consider a resolution expressing "regret" for a crackdown on the opposition that put 75 activists behind bars last year.
"The conditions here are very acceptable," 48-year-old prisoner Julio Zamora told reporters at the Combinado del Este's National Prisoners Hospital on Havana's eastern outskirts.
"The food has a lot of calories and is varied," added Zamora, among inmates authorized by authorities to speak to journalists. Zamora, serving a 20-year sentence for robbery, was not a patient at the hospital.
"I don't think what they are doing in the United Nations is right," said 31-year-old inmate Enrique Prieto, who joined the hospital's two-year nursing program while serving 30 years for armed robbery. "The people are attended with a lot of care."
Military doctors in olive green and nurses in traditional led reporters, photographers and cameramen through operating rooms, an intensive care ward, and recovery rooms linked by hallways reeking of disinfectant and fresh paint.
Journalists were invited to join the tour, originally organized for a national congress on prison medicine.
"With true satisfaction, we can affirm that inmates and detainees in Cuba receive adequate and humane treatment," Interior Ministry Col. Pablo Hernandez Cruz told the Cuban Congress on Prison Medicine earlier this week.
Later Wednesday, reporters toured the medical wards — including cells for new mothers and their babies — at the Western Women's Prison.
The prison maternity wing last year cared for 48 pregnant women and 37 newborns, said medical director Dr. Orestes Gonzalez. He said pregnant and nursing mothers receive more specialized food and calories than other inmates, and their babies get regular checkups, including once a week during their first month.
"They give a lot of attention here to the mothers and children," said 35-year-old Federica Sotomayor, who is serving eight years for malfeasance of funds.
U.S. senior officials in Havana, speaking on condition of anonymity, told a small group of journalists this week that Cuba's growing focus on prison conditions was diverting attention from a larger issue: the long sentences given 75 activists a year ago.
While there has been some international criticism of Cuba's prison conditions since, complaints have focused more on whether the activists' actions warranted prison terms of six to 28 years.
Cuba charged the activists with being mercenaries working with U.S. diplomats to undermine Fidel Castro's socialist system. The dissidents and Washington have denied that, saying they were only expressing their rights to free expression and assembly.
"None of these cases involved violence or the threat of violence," one of the U.S. officials said of the 74 men and one woman arrested in the March 2003 roundup.
Relatives of some imprisoned dissidents have complained their loved ones are not getting adequate medical care behind bars, a charge that has enraged communist officials.
Human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez, who has spent 8½ years in Cuban prisons, characterized Wednesday's tour as "primitive propaganda."
During the tour and meetings of the prison medicine congress earlier this week, Cuban authorities repeatedly refused to say how many prisoners there are on the island.
Sanchez's non-governmental Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation (search) has estimated there are scores of thousands of inmates around the island in more than 200 prisons and camps, including more than 300 political prisoners.