Armando Valladares was imprisoned by the Castro regime for over 20 years, suffering, with a multitude of other political prisoners, the most cruel and vile depredations; Against all Hope (Contra Toda Esperanza) is his account of those years; the title is taken from Romans 4.18-19. Published in 1985, the book is inscribed to ‘..the memory of my companions tortured and murdered in the prisons of Fidel Castro and to the thousands who presently agonize in them.’
The book does not set out to be a ‘Christian book’; the objective is to recount and condemn the Cuban regime’s treatment of political prisoners and to expose the Communist regime for what it was, and still is; note – as of 2020 the prisoners are still there. Nevertheless, it is a powerful testimony of a profoundly Christian nature; just reading that inscription again, I found very moving, since it is a work that helps one identify strongly with suffering people and with Christ. At intervals through the book Valladares mentions the central place of God, of Christ, in the prisons and his experience; this is the aspect I want to point towards in this review. The book is not for the squeamish; actually a strong stomach is called for at many points. Perhaps I should not attempt humour at this point, but it reminds me of the Anglican wedding ceremony which says that marriage is ‘not to be undertaken lightly’; reading this book is not a light undertaking.
Firstly, we will take a quick run through what Valladares describes, the events. V. supported the overthrow, by Castro, of the Batista dictatorship. This was supposed to bring democracy, but it soon became evident that the intent was a new, Communist dictatorship; V. in fact is at pains to demonstrate throughout the book that Castro never had any other intent. V. declined to have propaganda placed on his desk in a government office, was subsequently arrested on no evidence and, aged 20 or so, sentenced to 20 years prison. The first period was spent in a prison in Havana where countless firing squad executions were witnessed. He was then moved to a large prison complex on an island south of Cuba with 1000’s of other political prisoners. Conditions were harsh but the prisoners were clever and managed by extremes of subterfuge to gain and maintain outside contact, something which continued across the ensuing years; Valladares met the beautiful daughter of a fellow inmate on a prison visit, a relationship was established and she later escaped Cuba and agitated on his and others’ behalf with various institutions. After some 20 years of imprisonment, Valladares was eventually released. The two were finally married, but many men were not so fortunate as to escape with their lives.
There is a great account of he and 3 others managing an amazing prison break. Subsequent to recapture he spent several months in solitary; this was followed by a new prison regime for some years consisting of forced labour. All this is told in vivid detail with frequent cameo biographies of his fellow prisoners, and sometimes their torturers, very succinctly and sharply done. (I have not read an English translation.) The Spanish is measured and factual; there are occasional incidents of humour, but frequent amazement at the cruelty with which they were treated.
The next stage and really second half of the book revolves around a push by Castro to show that there were no political prisoners in Cuba. The uniforms of the politicals were removed and the men were told to put on the uniforms of common prisoners. Although faced with severe reprisals if they refused, including long term nakedness, many, many, refused and this became the issue of conscience for the next many years. The numbers of recalcitrants was whittled away by offers of rehabilitation, but many stood firm and this led to multiple years of hunger strikes, solitary confinement… a litany of awful suffering. For Valladares, at the end of it all, having been reduced to a state of a paralysis, international pressure led to his release; the communists spent the last several months of his captivity trying to get him presentable for the world, and he finally left Cuba on his feet, but leaving behind his mother and sister; the suffering of the women is the untold tale.
Turning to the Christian aspect, one would say it is a constant but usually unstated fact that surfaces from time to time. Firstly, he explains that when he was arrested as really a boy of 20, he had faith, but it was largely unformed, a body of belief to which he adhered – this following, evidently, education in a catholic school. Faith and God, quickly became a reality to him in prison as he saw men being shot; many men would shout as they prepared to die Abajo el comunismo! Viva Cristo Rey! Down with communism! Long live Christ the King!
He says this:-
There were nights of 10 or 12 executions; it was then that God began to turn into a constant companion and the prospect of death into a doorway to real life, a step from darkness into eternal light.
With this basis, he speaks a little later like this:
Every night, in those moments which precede sleep, I thought of my family and commended myself to God, asking him to strengthen my faith and to enable me to maintain firm my resolve not to allow the jailers to crush me spiritually, that they would be unable to dirty my soul with seeds of anger or hatred. My constant concern was not to sink into discouragement and despair, which were doing so much harm to many of those there. In my conversations with God, in the solitude of those minutes, I was finding the foundations of a faith which across the years would be subject to titanic struggles, but from which it would emerge victorious. An attitude of confidence towards every difficult circumstance became in me an instrument for direct combat. More than 20 years later, high up officers of the Political Police would have to comment, with hate-filled envy, that I was always laughing. They took away from me space, light and air, but they could not take away my smile. I considered this as a triumph of love over hate.
There was a very strong connection between having principles and the probability that they meant death; this runs so strongly through the book that we might well be encouraged to think of such scriptures as ‘as many as are baptised into Christ are baptised into his death’; ‘filling up the sufferings of Christ’. As Valladares turned to God, in prayer, he would be given strength. He hardly mentions doubt, though he speaks of fear as a constant; what he does convey is the extremes of physical distress to which he was brought, and it is then, again and again, that God would strengthen him.
At a couple of points in the book there appears the figure of a protestant pastor, known to all as El Hermano de la Fe, the Brother of Faith. This man tirelessly encouraged others; his constant refrain was, “do not let hate gain a mastery over you; do not hate!” He was eventually murdered in a hail of bullets, repeating as he died
…the words of Christ on the cross, “Forgive them, Lord, they know not what they do!” Everyone, as his blood dried, fought within their consciences to manage something so difficult but so beautiful as to forgive the enemy. With God, nothing is impossible; nor is it so for those who love him and seek him. The more ferocious the hatred of the prison officers, the more my heart filled with the faith that gave me strength to support everything; not in a conformist or masochistic way, but full of joy, freedom and inner peace, because Christ accompanied me through those labyrinths of horror and death….
I particularly like the statement that his heart filled with faith. Valladares does not say so, but one imagines that he became something of a symbol of resistance himself, and while never mentioning his part, he must, despite the knot in his stomach of physcial fear, have been a source of encouragement perhaps nearly equal to El Hermano de la Fe. This book is therefore a model of faithfulness to Christ, faithfulness unto death, faithfulness to one’s principles, and faithfulness to overcome hatred – and one would also say, after a little reflection, to the faithfulness of God. It is also an appalling testimony to the evil that lies in the hearts of countless torturers overcome by the hatred bred and nurtured by cynical political systems; and hence, by contrast, to the reality of Bible faith.