The House International Relations Committee invited witnesses to dig up details about what has come to be called the Cuban Program because POWs believe their tormentors were Cubans working with or advising fellow communist Vietnamese.
"They stood firm in the face of unrestrained brutality ... 30 years ago," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said of former prisoners who testified. "They are demonstrating their courage once again by working with us to ensure ... that justice is served."
She said the hearing aimed to get information on who the torturers were and declassification of U.S. government records for a new joint probe by State Department, Defense Department, FBI, CIA and the immigration service.
Others hope the investigation might lead to indictments of the men for human rights abuses.
Witnesses said 19 Americans were brutally beaten with rubber strips, tortured psychologically, held often in solitary confinement and repeatedly interrogated from August 1967 to August 1968 by three unidentified men the prisoners nicknamed Fidel, Chico and Pancho because of their accented English.
Though the goal of the treatment remains unclear, witnesses speculated it may have been to test torture and interrogation methods or perhaps to choose prisoners for use in communist propaganda.
Luis Fernandez, spokesman at Cuba's small diplomatic mission in Washington, dismissed the allegations as "part of the usual campaign" by Cuban exiles in America to damage Cuba's image.
"It is something that is completely false," he said. "Cuba would not have been involved in that kind of thing."
CIA investigations turned up possible names for Fidel and Chico in the mid-1970s. But the investigations "either ruled them out or proved inconclusive," partly because prisoners couldn't identify pictures of the suspected men, Robert J. Destatte, senior analyst at Defense's Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Office, said in a statement prepared for Thursday's hearing.
"I would call up (U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam) Pete Peterson and say 'Hey ask the Vietnamese who this guy is," Retired Air Force Col. Jack Bomar, a former POW, testified. "Put pressure on our ambassador to put pressure on the Vietnamese."
Fellow POW, retired Navy Capt. Ray Vohden, suggested getting a better photo of another man they suspect current Cuban Education Minister Fernando Vecino Alegret. Prisoners complained they were shown photos outdated by years or of people with beards and other distracting changes in appearance.
Destatte said officials two days ago "discovered a still-classified September 1973 report that described" Alegret as director of a Cuban military institute from September 1966 to January 1973, leaving "little chance (he) could be the interrogator 'Fidel.'"
Alegret, a lifelong military man who holds the rank of brigadier general, had denied the allegations against him, saying he was never in Vietnam. Cuban President Fidel Castro repeated the denial in a lengthy appearance on Cuban national television Monday night, saying that no Cubans ever tortured prisoners of war in Vietnam.
© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press