The ICRC since 1945: Cuba, the revolution and its immediate aftermath


How the ICRC entered into contact with Cuban revolutionary forces, supervised the transfer of wounded prisoners, and carried out a series of visits to jails in post-revolutionary Cuba.

By the end of 1957, Fidel Castro's rebel movement had wrested control of parts of Cuba from the forces of the Batista government. Concerned by the humanitarian consequences of the conflict, the ICRC sent a message to the Cuban Red Cross in April 1958, asking what could be done to help the victims.

No direct reply was forthcoming but in a telegram received at the beginning of July, Fidel Castro asked for ICRC help in organizing the release and transfer of wounded government prisoners who his medics were unable to care for because they lacked medical supplies. He said the wounded soldiers needed urgent help.

There followed a further exchange of messages, routed through the Venezuelan capital, Caracas and using the Swiss short-wave radio service. The ICRC shared these messages with the Cuban Red Cross and on 9 July sent a delegate, Pierre Jequier, to the island. Jequier's mission was to offer practical assistance to the Red Cross, to promote respect for common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (dealing with internal conflicts), and to assess the need for humanitarian relief on the rebel side, as well as ways to ensure its distribution.

 Rebel radio transmitter  

After a meeting with the head of state, President Batista, Jequier obtained authorization to arrange for the transfer of wounded. The authorities proposed that it take place near the southern town of Bayamo, close to rebel-held areas. The proposal was r elayed to Castro's forces through ICRC headquarters and a radio station in Caracas, tuned to the rebels'transmitter in the Sierra Maestra. The rebels rejected the location, saying it would require a long walk through the mountains, and made a new proposal.

"...they watched as a woman bearing a white flag approached on horseback. She told them that 50 wounded prisoners were nearby. She was then joined by Che Guevara..."

It took several days for the parties to agree on a location, but at last a truce was declared on 23 and 24 July. Jequier and a new colleague from Geneva went to the place suggested by Castro, an advance post of the Cuban army. " There they watched as a woman bearing a white flag approached on horseback. She told them that 50 wounded prisoners were nearby. She was then joined by Che Guevara, who told the delegates that 200 more prisoners were a bit further away… " . *

All of the prisoners were handed over to the Cuban army, watched by the ICRC and the Cuban Red Cross, whose doctors gave first aid to those needing it. To round off their involvement, and before leaving Cuba for Geneva, the delegates provided money to the Cuban Red Cross to buy medical supplies for the rebel army.

A fortnight later a representative of the Cuban revolutionary movement ( Frente Civico Revolucionaro ) visited Geneva and urged the ICRC to carry out visits to rebels held by the government, as well as army personnel held by the Castro forces. A delegate went to Havana in September and made contact with the authorities, but was unable to secure agreement for visits or other activities. He returned to Geneva but the ICRC kept trying to persuade Cuban representatives to allow further action, but to no avail.

 ICRC appeal  

On 30 December 1958, on the eve of the collapse of the Batista regime, the ICRC appealed to both sides to respect the spirit of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and to apply the provisions of Article 3. Two days later the new leadership of the Cuban Red Cross contacted the ICRC, which decided to send Pierre Jequier back to Havana.

Jequier met the new head of state, Dr. Urrutia, who undertook to respect the provisions of the Geneva Conventions for " military prisoners " . The next day the delegate visited an internment camp where some 400 prisoners, military and civilian, were being held.

Despite this promising start, Cuba's new foreign minister told Jequier of his disappointment over the fact that the ICRC had failed to take action to protect civilians who had fallen into the hands of the police before the collapse of the former government. Jequier explained the restrictions facing the ICRC in situations of internal conflict, namely that the authorities had to agree to it taking any action - which had not been the case under the deposed regime. There followed a suspension of visits, but they resumed on 9 March at the country's main prison, La Cabaña, where a thousand prisoners were held.

 Improvements at the jail  

Subsequently Jequier, joined by another delegate from Geneva, established a comprehensive plan for visiting jails in the country, without advance notice. When they went to La Cabaña for the second time they were able to report that conditions had improved since their first visit. By July 1959, they had visited all prisons and returned to Geneva.

Early the following year, in a climate of worsen ing relations between Cuba and the United States, the ICRC received requests from Cuban migrants in the US who claimed that prison conditions were worsening and urged the ICRC to intervene. Despite repeated attempts, the ICRC was unable to obtain permission to carry out any more visits.

The situation became acute after the Bay of Pigs operation, in which Cuban exiles, backed by the United States, attempted a sea-borne invasion. They were defeated and the vast majority of the invading force was captured. The ICRC renewed its call to the authorities for access to prisons, but again without success.

In March 1962, when the captured fighters were about to go on trial, the president of the ICRC appealed to Fidel Castro, asking that the provisions of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions be fully applied. The message once again asked for permission to visit prisoners. Further approaches were made, but Cuba's prison doors remained firmly closed to the ICRC.

 Read more on this in Françoise Perret's   article   in the International Review of the Red Cross