The looming bulk of the Museo Presidio Modelo lies 2km east of Nueva Gerona. Although this massive former prison has housed a fascinating museum for over thirty years and is now one of the most-visited sights on the island, its forbidding atmosphere has been preserved. Surrounded by guard towers, the classically proportioned governor’s mansion and phalanx of wardens’ villas mask the four circular cell buildings that rise like witches’ cauldrons from the centre of the complex.

Commissioned by the dictator Gerardo Machado, the “Model Prison” was built in 1926 by its future inmates as an exact copy of the equally notorious Joliet Prison in the US. At one time it was considered the definitive example of efficient design, as up to six thousand prisoners could be controlled with a minimum of staff, but it soon became infamous for unprecedented levels of corruption and cruelty. The last prisoner was released in 1967 and the cell blocks have long since slid into decay, serving to increase the sense of foreboding inside.

The cell blocks

Unmanned by museum staff and falling into disrepair, the four huge cylindrical cell blocks still feel as oppressive as they must have been when crammed with inmates. The prisoners, housed two or more to a cell, were afforded no privacy, constantly on view through the iron bars. Note the gun slits cut into the grim tower in the dead centre of each block, allowing one guard and his rifle to control nearly a thousand inmates from a position of total safety. To really appreciate the creepy magnitude of the cell blocks, you can take the precarious narrow marble staircase to the fifth-level floor.

The prison museum

Less disturbing than the cell blocks, the prison museum is located in the hospital block at the back of the grounds. Knowledgeable Spanish-speaking guides take you around and will expect a small tip. The most memorable part of the museum is the dormitory where Fidel Castro and the rebels of the Moncada attack were sequestered on the orders of Batista, for fear of them inflaming the other prisoners with their firebrand ideas. Above each of the 26 beds is the erstwhile occupant’s mug shot and a brief biography, while a piece of black cloth on each sheet symbolizes the rags the men tore from their trouser legs to cover their eyes at night, when lights were shone on them constantly as torture.

On February 13, 1954, Batista made a state visit to the Presidio Modelo. As he and his entourage passed their window, the rebels broke into a revolutionary anthem. As a result, Castro was confined alone in the room that now opens off the main entrance but was at the time next to the morgue, within full view of the corpses. For the early part of his forty-week sentence he was forbidden any light. Despite the prohibition, a crafty home-made lamp enabled Castro to read from his small library and to perfect the speech he had made at his defence, which was later published by the underground press as La Historia me Absolverá and became the manifesto of the cause.

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