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Presidio Modelo

by John Markis

Image: Presidio Modelo circa 1930[1]


Captured just before the Presidio Modelo’s opening in the early 1930s, this image depicts the panopticon’s eminence, a towering effigy of state control within the barren landscape.[2] The University of Florida released a complete album of Cuban architecture in 1970 to bolster its collection of miscellaneous Caribbean material, with the output coinciding with bolstered funding for racial and ethnic studies within the university. Despite the anonymity of the photographer, one may presume that the intended audience of this image comprises scholars researching the political structure of post-colonial Cuba.

The fact that the Presidio was constructed thirty years after Cuba’s abnegation of imperial Spain demonstrates the efficacy of modernity as an enduring force. The Cuban revolutionaries considered liberal democracy, justice, and “freedom from all hatred” the foundational tenets of their new society; to leader José Martí, the enemy constituted not only the imperialists but also the scourge of “inhumanity” itself, any manifestation of race- and class-associated hierarchy.[3] Yet as the guerillas evicted their initial oppressors, an even greater threat to Cuban sovereignty emerged: American intervention. Believing that the natives were neither “wise nor prudent” enough to successfully employ self-determination, President W. McKinley quickly overpowered the remaining vestiges of the Spanish army and secured control of the island for himself.[4] With the entire countryside razed, its armies depleted, and its population starved, Cuban leaders had no other option than to submit to annexation.[5] Under the guiding ethos that “the right thing was for civilized people to overcome barbarians,” Americans remained in Cuba until 1902 and departed only upon full acquisition of a naval base at Guantanamo Bay and the right to unabated intercession lest another colonial insurrection occur.[6] Even without these provisions, America maintained economic hegemony over exports of significant value, including sugar and tobacco, and Cuba could not ratify trade deals without explicit permission.[7] Thus, Marti’s vision never came to fruition, with America assuming the position previously held by Spain without sacrificing its own human capital.

Within this supervised political framework, President Gerardo Machado ascended to power. With the United States’ support, Machado decimated Cuba’s democratic institutions, unilaterally altering its constitution to award himself a limitless term in office.[8] Yet the Presidio represented his crowning achievement, a testament to his eradication of opposition. Here, he jailed his political opponents, such as anarchists, Marxists, Soviet Union sympathizers, and myriad university students.[9] Machado pursued these perceived threats to such an extent that onlookers soon regarded the Presidio as the isla de la juventud: island of the youth.[10] With a particular focus on incarcerating “thousands of black men,” the Presidio reminded its inmates of their enduring psychological isolation through its location on the outer precipices of the island, with windows aligned toward the ocean on all sides.[11] The panoptical model allowed for no disobedience within its gaze, and prisoners unaware of this rigidity suffered excruciating penalties, as two men hanged for eating beyond their allotment in the cafeteria realized.[12] Approving only literature that condoned “Yankee imperialism,” the prison considered itself motivated by rehabilitation and released its inmates only upon an effective re-education.[13] The Presidio’s reputation as el monstruo pervaded into the streets and reverberated throughout the villages, where mothers would admonish their children with frightening tales of its interior.[14]

The legacy of the Presidio, preserved in this image, reminds the viewer of two elements essential to understanding the broader history of incarceration. Firstly, the panoptical selection demonstrated a tangible shift in the penal theory. Whereas punishment-as-spectacle had once saturated the slave-replete colony, with whipping stations and shackles ubiquitous, Cuba’s subsequent modernization concealed the execution of justice to the periphery of its territory.[15] Physical tortures now correlated with the “economy of suspended rights,” in which convicts involuntarily relinquished access to physiological necessities until they conformed to the standards prescribed by modernity.[16] The panopticon facilitated such a process, as the prisoner remained under constant surveillance and monitoring. The crimes themselves evolved to concentrate on the impermissible “thoughts, wills, and inclinations,” such as skepticism of capitalism, that could diminish the ruling class’ authority.[17] Rehabilitation operated to enforce proper characteristics that instilled “good moral conduct” that included meek subservience to the politics of the neo-imperialists, with Christianity serving as an integral tool to this mission.[18]

These aspects of the panopticon allude to the Presidio’s second connection to the broader history of incarceration: the durability of the neoliberal social structure accompanied by illusory progress toward liberalization. Although Cuba may have attained its freedom from Spain, its post-war lack of military strength made it vulnerable to re-conquest. Given the degree to which foreign powers relied upon the island for inexpensive labor and abundant exports, neo-colonialists had a vested interest in ensuring Cuba’s docility to free markets. American and Britain could not permit the island to deviate from its subordination, lest such a notion rapidly spread and topple the status quo. Thus, as much as Cubans seemingly ruled themselves, the presence of America, eager to cultivate Cuba’s crops with an assurance of stability, quelled any aspiration for true democracy. The ulterior function of government behooved capital, not the people, and incarceration observed and coerced behavior lest it veer from this goal. The transition away from slavery allowed modernity to allege credible respect for natural rights, yet the legal system, which maintained a high population density and low standard of living, fostered the same pattern of exploitation.[19] Thus, the closing of the Presidio in 1970, less than a decade after the completion of the Cuban Communist revolution and an explicit pledge of Fidel Castro’s, truly delineates between the era of imperial dominance and Martí’s hope for legitimate Cuban sovereignty actualized.



[1] “Circulares del Presidio Modelo de Isla de Pinos,” Cuban Collections, University of Florida Digital Collections, last accessed Monday, August 3, 2020, https://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00086530/00001/citation.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Lawrence Tone, War and Genocide in Cuba (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 53, ProQuest EBook Central.

[4] Tone, War and Genocide, 284.

[5] Tone, War and Genocide, 285.

[6] Tone, War and Genocide, 247.

[7] Wilber A. Chaffee, Jr., Cuba: A Different America (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1989), 3, Google Books.

[8] Chaffee, Cuba: A Different America, 4.

[9] Chaffee, Cuba: A Different America, 3.

[10] Pablo de la Torriente Brau, Presidio Modelo (Havana, La Habana: Centro Cultro, 2000), 211, https://gredos.usal.es/bitstream/handle/10366/21589/ptb_presidio_modelo.pdf;sequence=1.

[11] De la Torriente Brau, Presidio Modelo, 150.

[12] De la Torriente Brau, Presidio Modelo, 296.

[13] De la Torriente Brau, Presidio Modelo, 402.

[14] De la Torriente Brau, Presidio Modelo, 156.

[15] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 9, Sakai.

[16] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 11.

[17] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 17.

[18] Annette Bickford, Southern Mercy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 144, Sakai.

[19] Dawn P. Harris, Punishing the Black Body (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2017), 94, Sakai.