On March 29, four days before Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Havana, Cuban police arrested eight members of the Cuban Human Rights party, which has perhaps a few dozen members. They were tried the next day, without having legal counsel, on charges of clandestinely printing the party’s newsletter Franqueza. The evidence produced against them consisted of the fourth issue of Franqueza, which discussed human rights abuses by the regime. Five men were fined varying sums equivalent to an average Cuban worker’s salary for one to two months, and all were released from custody. The group was undeterred and announced plans to hold a demonstration on April 4 in front of the Soviet embassy—where Gorbachev would be staying—to appeal for glasnost and perestroika in Cuba. This was thwarted by the arrest of some twenty-one human activists on the night before the demonstration was to be held.
Again those arrested were tried quickly, and, again, without counsel. This time several received prison sentences of up to nine months. Since November, six other human rights activists have been sentenced to terms of up to a year in prison for clandestine printing and on charges of public disorder arising out of their attempts to take part in small peaceful demonstrations. At least twenty-two Cuban human rights activists who were arrested following the visit to Cuba last September of a delegation from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights are currently serving prison sentences or being held without trial.
Behind these developments is a complex story, largely unreported, of the way human rights abuses in Cuba have been treated during the last two years by the United Nations and the US government. The effects have been both positive and negative. Under international pressure the Cuban government allowed several small independent human rights organizations to emerge in Cuba and work openly, and despite harassment and reprisals, they continue to do so. On the other hand, the Castro regime continues to impose prison sentences on its citizens for even the mildest manifestations of dissent, such as planning a demonstration. Indeed, it was willing to do so even when hundreds of foreign journalists arrived to cover Gorbachev’s visit, and Cuba was briefly the center of world attention.
The number of people involved in independent Cuban organizations is not impressive compared to those of other countries. At most, a few hundred people have become active in four human rights groups—the Cuban Human Rights party, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, the Martí Committee for Human Rights, and the Cuban Committee for Human Rights. In addition a small independent arts group has been organized which holds exhibitions by dissident artists and tries to defend the rights of painters, sculptors, and other artists to free expression. By the standards of Cuba during the three decades under Castro’s rule, however, even these limited efforts are a remarkable achievement. Under Cuba’s pervasive system of political surveillance, much of it carried out by …