Cuban officials, under diplomatic cover in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, brutally tortured and killed American POWs whom they beat senseless in a research program "sanctioned by the North Vietnamese." Newly declassified secret CIA and Department of Defense (DOD) intelligence documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal the extent of Cuba's involvment with American POWs captured in Vietnam.
Former POW, Air Force Lt. Colonel Donald "Digger" Odell said that two American POWs in the cell next to him were not released by the Hanoi communists because "they were too severely tortured by Cuban interrogators..." "The Vietnamese didn't want the world to see what they had done to them."
Department of Defense officials have admitted that POWs "were told not to talk about "third-country interrogations" because it would have "all kinds of diplomatic ramifications." Hence, the torture and murder of American POWs during the Vietnam War was swept under the rug by the U.S. Government.
In what was termed the "Cuban Program", testing "...torture methods were [sic] of primary interest." The Cubans were nicknamed "Fidel", "Chico", "Pancho", and "Garcia" by the American POWs. "Fidel", the leader of the program, was characterized as "a professional interrogator." However, "Chico" was described as looking like a Czech. He spoke Spanish poorly and with an accent, and he could not write Spanish well. In all probability, he was a Czech "communist internationale" undercover as a Cuban.
"Fidel", called one American POW the "Faker" because he acted as if he was in a trance; however, the other POWs knew he wasn't faking it, for he had been beaten senseless by "Fidel" and his cohorts. Air Force Ace, Major James Kasler, was also tortured by the Cubans in 1968. "Fidel" beat Kasler across the buttocks with a large truck fan belt until his "buttocks, lower back, and legs hung in shreds." Kasler said "at least 15 men were either killed during torture or were not accounted for."
The documents reveal that the Cubans not only tortured and killed POWs in Vietnam, but they also might have taken as many as 17 American POWs to Cuba in the mid-1960s. The POWs, mostly pilots, were reportedly imprisoned in Villa Marista, a secret Cuban prison run by Castro's G-2 intelligence service. According to a State Department cable, a former aide to Fidel Castro offered "...to ransom POWs in North Vietnam through the Castro Government." The last paragraph stated, "Propose doing nothing further..." -- and nothing was done.
One Cuban witness said he was held with a small group of American POWs in Villa Marista prison in Cuba. The POWs referred to each other by rank, such as Lieutenant and Captain, and a guard told him that these Americans were war prisoners, mostly pilots, brought from North Vietnam. The Cuban later escaped and fled to the U.S., and although he was interviewed by FBI agents upon his arrival in the U.S., no one seemed "particularly interested in the information."
According to a 1975 secret CIA counterintelligence study, the "'Cuban Program'...was a Hanoi University Psychological Study." Hanoi's Ministry of Public Security's Medical Office (MPSMO) was responsible for "preparing studies and performing research on the most effective Soviet, French, Communist Chinese and other ...techniques..." of extracting information from POWs. The MPSMO "...supervised the use of torture and the use of drugs to induce [American] prisoners to cooperate." Its functions also "...included working with Soviet and Communist Chinese intelligence advisors who were qualified in the use of medical techniques for intelligence purposes."
"The Soviets and Chinese ... were ... interested in research studies on the reactions of American prisoners to various psychological and medical techniques..." "The Cubans has [sic] the authority to order NVNS [North Vietnamese] to torture American PWs [POWs]."
The "Cuba Program" in Vietnam parallels that of a similar Soviet program in Korea according to congressional testimony given late last year by General Jan Sejana, the highest ranking defector from the Soviet Block during the "Cold War". Gen. Sejana worked for years as a top-secret analyst for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. He testified that "Americans were used to test physiological and psychological endurance and various mind-control drugs. Moscow ordered Czechoslovakia to build a hospital in North Korea for the experiments there." In Hanoi, Cuban and Czech medical personnel worked together at the top-secret "Hospital 198" in Hanoi where American POWs were believed to have been taken for "treatment".
Recently, Hanoi "reaffirmed the unswerving solidarity of the communist party, the government and people of Vietnam with the Cuban revolution," and praised Cuba for its shootdown of the two American planes flown by Brothers to the Rescue, a humanitarian organization that rescues Cuban refugees on the high seas.
Recently, while on vacation, President Clinton emasculated the Helms- Burton Act-- designed to encourage democratic developments in Cuba. Now, Clinton, with the apparent help of the Republicans, is about to take away the only leverage the U.S. has left to force the Vietnamese communists to account for American POWs known to have been alive and in the hands of Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Thus the opportunity will be lost to bring these Cuban criminals to justice.
Letting the Cubans go unpunished sets an ugly precedent, adding to America's "paper tiger" image of impotence. President Clinton has nominated retiring Democratic Congressman, and former POW, Pete Peterson (Fla.) as Ambassador to Vietnam. Peterson's approval or disapproval rests in the hands Republican Senator Craig Thomas (Wyo.), Chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia. Hearings are planned for early February, and Thomas' spokesman says that he thinks "the outcome will be favorable."
Delores Alfond, Chairperson for the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America's Missing Servicemen, says that the U.S. Government should relentlessly pursue the prosecution of these Cuban torturers and murderers as it has the Nazi Concentration Camp Guards from World War II as recently exampled. The Alliance has called upon the American Cuban community to help bring these criminals to justice.
Out of respect to the POW/MIAs and their families and to all military personnel, Senator Thomas and the other committee members should place a moratorium on the approval of an ambassador to Vietnam until Hanoi provides them the names of these Cubans. The U.S. Government can move heaven and earth running down terrorists who murder American civilians, such as in the Achille-Laurel incident; however, it should do no less for state-sponsored torture and murder committed by Cuba--"sanctioned by the North Vietnamese" --against American servicemen.
February 10, 1997 Michael D. Benge* Former POW and Board Member National Alliance of Families
*The author spent 11 years in Vietnam, over five years as a prisoner of War-- 1968-73, and is a diligent follower of the affairs of the region. While serving as a civilian Foreign Service Officer, he was captured in South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese, and held in numerous camps in South Vietnam, Cambodia, laos and North Vietnam. He spent 27 months in solitary confinement and one year in a "black box". For efforts in rescuing several Americans before being captured, he received the State Department's highest award for heroism and a second one for valor. >>