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Castro’s Victims

Certain facts are clear about human rights in Cuba. Since Fidel Castro took power in 1959, Cuba has confined large numbers of political prisoners for longer periods than any other country in the world. No one outside Cuba knows how many, but Fidel Castro himself has said publicly that at one time there were as many as fifteen thousand, and he reportedly told one of his biographers that the number was twenty thousand. Many of the political prisoners were confined for long periods under degrading and cruel circumstances, and some were prohibited visitors for years at a time. They were denied anything resembling fair trials.

During Castro’s first decade in power, several thousand prisoners were executed; even today, many years after Castro consolidated control and suppressed all violent attempts to overthrow his government, more than a hundred men now in middle age or elderly remain incarcerated from the early days of the Cuban revolution, many of them for defying Castro or for breaking with him over the direction of the revolution. In more recent years, many dissenters have been sentenced to long prison terms for such offenses as drawing defamatory caricatures of government leaders, writing letters to foreign dignitaries criticizing the revolution, and possessing “enemy propaganda,” which consists of a writer’s own manuscript.

By the customary standards of human rights, the prolonged imprisonment of many persons for peaceful dissent, and the execution of thousands after trials wholly lacking fairness, are gross abuses of internationally recognized human rights. That is, they are abuses that violate all of the civilized norms on which the nations of the world have agreed since the end of World War II. By every criterion that has been established and accepted internationally during the past four decades, Cuba warrants severe condemnation for its abuses of human rights.

In addition, Cuba systematically denies civil liberties. Freedom of expression and association are unknown; there are no opposition newspapers, magazines, or radio broadcasts; no independent unions, professional associations, or political groups; the churches are not a forum for dissent. No organization is able to work in Cuba, either openly or clandestinely, to defend or even to monitor human rights; Cubans do not have the right to leave and those who have left do not have the right to return; there is no independent judiciary; and there is no other institution in Cuba that is able to restrain the arbitrary exercise of power by the government and its leader, Fidel Castro.

Despite its terrible record, Cuba has never figured prominently in the concerns of most organizations and people who actively promote human rights. That is not to say that it has been ignored. The largest and most important organization in the field, Amnesty International, has monitored developments in Cuba using the same criteria that it uses in dealing with other countries, and it has organized campaigns on behalf of individual prisoners of conscience in Cuba. An inter-governmental body, the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, has published several valuable studies of human rights abuses in Cuba; the organization with which I am associated, Americans Watch, a much newer group, published its first report on Cuba in 1983, two years after we were established, and has recently published another, more substantial report. PEN clubs in the United States and elsewhere have campaigned on behalf of imprisoned Cuban writers. Yet in view of the severity of the abuses in Cuba, its proximity to the United States, the presence here of a large exile community, and its linguistic accessibility—all usually factors in determining the amount of human rights activity—the efforts that have been undertaken by human rights activists seem relatively meager.

There are, of course, those who argue that the relative paucity of human rights activity centered on Cuba reflects leftist bias. This argument seems to me partly true but it also oversimplifies matters and it may do more to obscure the reasons for the relative inattention to Cuba than to explain it.

The chief reason that human rights activists have paid little attention to Cuba, in my view, is a historical one. It was not until the late 1970s that efforts to promote human rights internationally developed into a significant movement in the United States and elsewhere.1 In Latin America, the 1970s was a horrifying decade, marked by tens of thousands of murders and disappearances and the pervasive use of torture in a host of right-wing dictatorships: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Paraguay, and Uruguay; and the deaths of forty thousand to fifty thousand persons in the insurrection in Nicaragua, most of them killed in Somoza’s attacks on the civilian population. Calling attention to the slaughter and trying to halt it were urgent concerns. Most of those active in the human rights movement saw little cause to devote their energies to Cuba, where most of the executions had taken place during the previous decade; where death squads and disappearances were unknown; where reports of the mistreatment of prisoners were not so gory as those emanating from the torture centers elsewhere in Latin America; and where even the number of political prisoners was for a time diminishing, especially during the period of détente with the United States in the Carter years.

To some human rights activists, moreover, concentrating on abuses of human rights in Cuba during the 1970s seemed not only misplaced but possibly even dangerous. The most frequent accusation against the victims of abuses elsewhere in the hemisphere was that they were agents of Cuba. Denunciations of Cuba, through a foolish twist of political logic, were probably seen by some as aiding the cause of the oppressors.

At the beginning of the 1980s, human rights activists in the United States concerned with Latin America were principally preoccupied by the firestorm of abuses that swept through El Salvador and, to a much lesser extent, by the comparable carnage in Guatemala. (Guatemala attracted less attention than El Salvador both because the United States had a smaller part in its recent history and because it was far more difficult to gather reliable information on what was going on in Guatemala. Many large-scale massacres went unreported in the American press.) Now, in the last half of the decade, the Reagan administration’s intense concentration on Nicaragua has shifted attention to abuses both by the Sandinista government and by the contras attempting to overthrow it. Cuba, where little has changed except for the release of some additional prisoners, continues to attract little attention.

Other factors have also contributed. The identification of some Cuban exiles with extreme right-wing causes, and with such notorious crimes as the Watergate burglary and the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in Washington in 1976—events that coincided with the rise of the human rights movement—undoubtedly made some human rights activists reluctant to associate themselves with the anti-Castro cause. No doubt, also, some of those active in efforts to promote human rights elsewhere are committed leftists of the kind who are unwilling to criticize “socialist” Cuba. Others are still taken in by the mystique of the romantic revolutionary, Fidel Castro; others argue that Cuba’s proclaimed achievements in health care, nutrition, and literacy should be weighed against its abuses of civil and political rights; others consider that efforts by Americans to promote human rights internationally should be directed only at countries that are beneficiaries of American military, economic, or diplomatic support; others believe that Americans have dirty hands in the case of Cuba because we supported Batista and tried to overthrow Castro and even enlisted the Mafia to help the CIA in trying to assassinate him; and others are ignorant of the extent of human rights abuses in Cuba. I suspect that many people fit into more than one of these categories.

Yet another factor is Cuba’s refusal to permit anyone or any group to conduct a human rights investigation.2 Some organizations that work for human rights have adopted the method of sending investigative missions, publishing reports, and basing campaigns on those reports. Faced with the impossibility of pursuing this method in the case of Cuba, human rights groups have had difficulty in devising other ways of launching campaigns about Cuban abuses. The fact that the United States imposes restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba further complicates the matter.

Those who are most vehement in denouncing human rights activists for not concerning themselves with Cuba, such as Jeane Kirkpatrick and Elliott Abrams, may themselves contribute to the problem they decry. The manner in which they put their argument suggests that their purpose is to deprecate the significance of abuses elsewhere or to belabor human rights groups rather than to promote human rights in Cuba.

An address by Jeane Kirkpatrick to the United Nations Economic and Social Council on December 8, 1983, is characteristic. Chile was on the agenda, but Kirkpatrick chose to attack the UN’s concern with Chile by claiming that Cuba was worse, pointing out that Cuba “holds many times more political prisoners in its jails.” This was true, though anyone who wanted to respond in similar fashion could have pointed out that extreme physical torture was applied to most political prisoners in Chile, but not in Cuba. What should be made clear, however, is that abuses of human rights in Chile and Cuba are different, and they cannot usefully be measured against each other. Cuba should be denounced for its own sins, not because they are greater or less than those of Chile.

In a similar vein, Elliott Abrams delivered an address to the Cuban-American National Foundation on August 23, 1984, entitled “Cuba in Western Eyes: Reds Through Rose-Colored Glasses.” Abrams told his audience that “many of today’s journalists, human rights activists, and even clergymen, are simply yesterday’s peace activists in a somewhat more decorous garb” and accused those who called attention to abuses by allies of the United States instead of abuses by Cuba of “invincible anti-Americanism.”

That Jeane Kirkpatrick and Elliott Abrams use the issue of human rights abuses in Cuba to oppose efforts to condemn abuses elsewhere or to impugn those who work for human rights elsewhere is certainly not a good reason, however, for ignoring the terrible suffering that the Castro government has inflicted on dissenters. Whatever Mr. Abrams may say or do, it should be obvious that those concerned with human rights must do everything they can to expose such treatment and help those who endure it.

A case that might be selected from many to illustrate the vindictive and cruel character of Castro’s government is that of Edmigio Lopez Castillo, a writer and, at one time, a Cuban diplomat serving in the Soviet Union. He was sentenced to prison in 1968 for his affiliation with “La Microfacción,” an opposition group of orthodox Marxists. While still in prison in 1980, he was resentenced to another eight years in prison for writing poetry and essays favoring human rights in Cuba. When a group of visiting Americans raised Lopez’s case with Cuban authorities during a visit to Havana last fall, they were told that his new sentence in 1980 was imposed because he defamed government officials in his drawings and that he defamed the revolution in letters to foreign leaders. According to some reports, Lopez may be released before his sentence expires in 1988 because an illness has left him nearly blind and because he is approaching sixty.

  1. 1

    Amnesty International was founded in 1961, but it remained a relatively small, principally European organization during the 1960s. Other groups were founded even earlier than Amnesty, but did not have a significant impact.

  2. 2

    At present, Guyana is the only other country in the hemisphere that excludes human rights missions; in the case of Guyana, however, an effective domestic human rights association supplies data on which international groups can base their efforts.

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