Panopticon by David Joez Villaverde


for Brandon Edward Mitchell

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – Juvenal

El Presidio Modelo was constructed in the first term of the despot Gerardo Machado. He modeled it after Bentham’s Panopticon, a circular design, wherein the watchmen could see all the prisoners but the prisoners couldn’t see them. No one took Bentham seriously in his own lifetime, but ideas that were easily dismissed in Georgian England found fertile ground in Machado’s Cuba. El Presidio was built primarily as a political tool, to house dissidents and radicals who opposed Machado’s rule. As a tool it sufficed; outliving its creator, later going on to house the Castro brothers during the rule of Batista, and then after, their own political enemies as they rose to power. Fidel closed the prison in 1967 and while corks popped and backs were slapped at Langley when the news broke, no one outside of Castro’s inner circle knew the real reason why.

When Machado built El Presidio, he lacked the technology to make the guards invisible to the inmates. Hence, it could never live up to Bentham’s vision, it could never create the absolute uncertainty needed to sustain the mirage of total surveillance. Without this cloak of anonymity the lone spire in the center of the massive ringed cage was naked. It could only serve as a locus of power if the implicit threat of violence was more than a threat. Order was still achieved the old fashioned way, through the natural byproducts of intimidation and self-preservation. The provocateurs and unruly were the first unwilling martyrs culled by firing squad.

El Presidio Modelo is five circular pods with five hundred cells each. It was not designed to hold more than 2,500 inmates. When the population began swelling in ’61 the balance of power shifted. Single cells became doubles. Some contemporary Cuban historians, such as Jamie Suchlikci, attribute this burgeoning prison population to the “ineffectuality of the new guardias communistas” and a revolutionary government very consciously trying to distance itself from the brutality of the previous regimes. In actuality, it is hard to parse if this is the correct reading of history or merely academic rightwing anti-Castro propaganda designed to make Castro, and by proxy, communism, seem weak and perhaps effeminate. Regardless of the reason, the prison was swelling with CIA trained operatives, Dominican agents, and anti-Castro intelligentsia, none of whom were executed with the frequency they deserved. The year El Presidio finally closed its population was well in excess of 6,000 prisoners. Some anecdotal accounts have it as high as 8,000.

It was clear that it was no longer the inmates who were being watched.

The prisoners began organizing, their cells became the cells of a body — communicating seamlessly — working as one. They would crowd their cell doors in a synchronized fashion reminiscent of the wave at El Estadio Lationamericano, all eyes converging on the helpless jailers who could not look in any direction without being seen, every gaze being reflected back at them a hundred fold, the emptiness of their power elucidated in silence.


Sometimes the incarcerated would chant “no estamos encerrados contigo, ustedes están encerrados con nosotros” to the tune of an anthem from a local fútbol club, but mostly they kept silent sentry over those charged with their oversight. They watched. Even the guards possessing the most mental fortitude only managed to last a few months before a complete breakdown. Many committed suicide, or were taken back to Mazorra in Havana. It was dubbed the ‘el turno matador’, in all probability by the guards themselves, who were known to draw straws or cast die to see whom would be assigned the perimeter watch and spared the agony. Twelve guards killed themselves before the prison was officially closed. The most grizzly of those suicides was that of Jesús Manuel Ignacio, known simply as “Manolo”, who, by all accounts, was a well loved and respected family man. He shot himself in the head with a double barrel shotgun in his kitchen, and although the coroner’s report is somewhat hyperbolic and unprofessional, it does appear to confirm the rumor that he shot himself in the eyes.

El Presidio Modelo is now a museum, its horrors long since gone, all but whitewashed away in the ever-forgiving revisionist textbooks that come out of Havana these days. Schoolchildren from Nueva Gerona take tours on weekdays and pretend to be criminals, playing in the cells with the same deference for the incarcerated that all the tourists of Alcatraz share. Recently, the director said that a group of young hooligans from el Chacón had broken in and vandalized the pods. They had spray-painted on the guard towers what translates to “leave the watching to the watched”.


General Machado is now interred in Caballero Rivero Woodlawn North Park Cemetery, his body one among many, another faceless name in a sea of forgotten Cuban plutocrats, minor celebrities, and various School of the Americas alumni. He lies entombed in a marble mausoleum, where he and all the other generalísimos sit eyeless in a wall facing south with no one to watch over them, oversight being, as the prisoners of El Presidio knew, a matter of perspective, subject to the movements of the eye and the directionality of history.




David Joez Villaverde is a Peruvian American writer with published or forthcoming flash fiction in Wigleaf, Ellipsis, The Fanzine, 100 Word Short Story, and Former Cactus. He is a former editor of the After Happy Hour Review. He resides in Detroit and can be found at or on Twitter @academicjuggalo


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