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Cuba: The Human Rights Show

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 the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution that are set up in every neighborhood, virtually every sign of independent activity is carefully monitored and recorded. The Catholic Church in Cuba, in contrast to the Church in such diverse countries as Poland, Chile, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, is not a powerful institution and does not use such power as it has to offer physical or political shelter to those attempting to establish independent movements. Cubans who form independent groups risk not only imprisonment but losing their jobs—a difficulty not usually considered serious enough to be noted in international denunciations of human rights abuses but one that has severe effects when the state controls all employment.

All of the Cuban dissenters I have heard from have no doubt that international attention from human rights groups, the UN, and the US has made their recent activities possible and given them protection. The simple fact that someone is watching provides encouragement; and though a prison term of nine months for printing a newsletter or assembling quietly to hold up signs calling for glasnost seems draconian, not so long ago the sentence might have been nine years. Fidel Castro may have thumbed his nose at international public opinion by ordering the arrest and trial of a few human rights activists just when the world was watching his meeting with Gorbachev, but he could no longer afford to treat them quite so harshly as he did in years past.

The main forum for the international debate over action on human rights in Cuba during the past few years was the United Nations. The UN’s human rights groups had paid little or no attention to what was going on in Cuba during the decade following Castro’s seizure of power, when many thousands of political prisoners were confined under terrible conditions, and thousands of others were executed after summary trials. They started paying attention to Cuba a little over two years ago mainly in response to an intense campaign by the US, which many nations felt could not be ignored, but which exaggerated the situation. In speeches and official statements, US officials claimed the human rights situation in Cuba, particularly so far as the prisons were concerned, remained the same as it had been in the 1960s. They asserted, for example, that there were still 15,000 or more political prisoners in Cuba and that “disappearances” and secret executions were being carried out. They demanded that Cuba be condemned by the UN Commission on Human Rights on the basis of such claims.

All the South American democracies that were members of the Human Rights Commission refused to go along with the US’s condemnation of Cuba. Though not friendly to Fidel Castro, and willing to be critical of his government’s human rights record, such governments as those of Venezuela and Argentina made it clear that they were skeptical about the US account of the situation in Cuba and that they were repelled by the rhetoric and the lobbying tactics employed by the US delegation to the Geneva meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1987. The US-sponsored resolution calling for condemnation of Cuba was defeated by a vote of 19 to 18 in March 1987, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela voting against the US resolution, and Brazil abstaining. Following this defeat, the Reagan administration intensified its efforts to get the UN to condemn Cuba. It sponsored public relations campaigns within some of the South American countries that had not gone along with the resolution condemning Cuba. State Department officials let it be known that financial aid to the government of India had been reduced for opposing the US resolution. Armando Valladares, a former long-term Cuban prisoner and author of a well-known book chronicling the horrors of twenty-two years of prison life in Cuba, was appointed US ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights.

The campaign by the United States apparently persuaded the Cubans to open up their prisons to a number of international delegations concerned with human rights, including two with several representatives from Americas Watch, and another from Amnesty International, in an effort to show that conditions were better than the US alleged. In preparation for these visits, several scores of prisoners held for politically motivated offenses, violent and nonviolent, were released, and some of the harshest conditions in the prisons were modified. For example some prisoners who were kept naked or nearly naked in punishment cells were given clothing, and some of the barriers that prevented all light from entering such cells were removed. Even so, visitors reported that they observed cruel treatment of some prisoners (along with such features as extensive paid work programs that they felt were humane), but all came away unpersuaded by the US charges at the UN that many thousands of political prisoners were still being held and that disappearances and secret executions were being carried out. At about the time these visits were taking place,* in March 1988, a compromise was reached at the UN Commission on Human Rights. A resolution condemning Cuba, which was favored by the US, was shelved; instead, Cuba invited a delegation from the commission to visit and see for itself.

The six-member UN delegation visited Cuba between September 16 and 25, 1988, and published its report on February 21, 1989. It is a valuable document, although it has had very little attention in the American press. About 30,000 words long, it comes to no conclusions and, at every point, takes pains to present the Cuban government’s version of the facts and its responses to any complaints. The report’s studied neutrality reflects an effort to maintain a consensus within the politically diverse delegation, which was made up of ambassadors to the commission from Nigeria, Colombia, the Philippines, Bulgaria, and Ireland, and whose chairman was the Senegalese chairman of the UN commission. But if the report is read closely, a telling picture emerges from it of the human rights situation in Cuba today. The delegation considered not only the dramatic charges by the United States about the numbers and treatment of political prisoners but also the general question of the state of civil liberties in Cuba. In discussing freedom of the press, for example, the UN commission’s report says:

The Deputy Editor of the newspaper Granma explained to the group that the exercise of freedom of the press by journalists must be understood in the context of the Revolution, in the sense that opinions at variance with the Communist Party’s political line were not given preferential treatment in his newspaper, and therefore the newspaper did not serve as a vehicle for the regular expression of such opinions. More explicitly, the President of the Union of Journalists said that Cuba and the Revolution could not be attacked in the name of freedom of the press; accordingly, the Cuban media did not allow any scope for opinions tending to destroy the achievements of the Revolution.

In discussing the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the report stated:

The group and the Secretariat on behalf of the group received complaints from individuals to the effect that the CDRs interfered with their privacy or to the effect of being insulted, of attacks against their homes and even physical assault, at the instigation of the CDRs and reportedly against those who wanted to leave the country in 1980, during or surrounding the so-called “Mariel exodus” events. Lastly, the group received some complaints of alleged tampering with mail or telephones. With regard to these events, known as “acts of repudiation,” the Minister of Justice said that they had occurred spontaneously and reflected the population’s antagonism towards those who wanted to leave the country. He claimed that, in many cases, the authorities had to intervene in order to prevent excesses.

The report shows in detail that civil liberties, whether of free expression, movement, or assembly, are almost completely denied to Cuban citizens. It should have been seen as a severe indictment of the Cuban regime; but it was not interpreted that way by members of the UN commission in Geneva. What, some of them asked, had become of “the 15,000 or more” political prisoners cited by United States ambassador to the United Nations Vernon Walters, when he launched the demand for condemnation of Cuba in his 1987 address to the commission? The only reference to numbers of political prisoners in the report is in the Cuban government’s statements to the delegation:

The Minister of the Interior told the group that, in recent months, the number of counter-revolutionary political prisoners had dropped from 458 to 145. Following the visit, the group was informed by the Government of Cuba that the number of counter-revolutionary prisoners had dropped to 121.

Human rights organizations have pointed out that the Cuban government’s figures leave out several categories of political prisoners, among them those charged with allegedly attempting to leave Cuba, desacato (disrespect or contempt for officials), and clandestine printing. If the number of prisoners in all such categories, including those considered to be “counterrevolutionaries by the Cuban government,” are added together the number whose names are known is less than three hundred. There may be some others whose names are not known, particularly among Jehovah’s Witnesses held for clandestine printing and among conscientious objectors held in military prisons, since it is extremely difficult to obtain information on these cases. When such numbers are compared to the 15,000 political prisoners claimed by the United States, the report by the UN commission’s delegation appears to many to exonerate Cuba from at least the gravest of the charges the US made in 1987 and 1988. This impression is reinforced by the failure of the report to provide any support for the allegations of disappearances and secret executions.

The Human Rights Commission would up its consideration of the Cuban question not only by implicitly acknowledging that the worst of the US charges were not proved and by recognizing that the Cuban government had gone further than it had before in responding to concerns about human rights, but also by praising the Cuban government. In a vote on March 9, 1989, the commission thanked “the Government and the people of Cuba for the cooperation extended to the mission” and for “the reaffirmation of the desire of the Cuban authorities to continue cooperation in the human rights sphere.” The resolution spoke of “the willingness of the Government of Cuba to…take into account the objective assessments formulated in the course of the debate” about human rights in Cuba and it welcomed “the willingness of the Government of Cuba to cooperate with the Secretary-General [of the United Nations] in maintaining his direct contacts on the issues and questions contained in the report.” The resolution was adopted by a vote of 32 to 1 with 10 abstentions. Both the United States and Cuba supported the resolution. Morocco, the lone dissenter, apparently cast its negative vote by mistake; and the abstentions included some of the South American nations, including Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela, that had been unenthusiastic about pursuing the US claims from the beginning.

Armando Valladares claimed the vote on the resolution was a victory for the United States, although his reasons for saying so were not clear, and few of those who had paid attention to the sequence of events in Geneva found his claim persuasive. That the Cuban government celebrated the outcome was much easier to understand. The resolution contained not one word of criticism of Cuba. The only reference to continuing examination of the human rights situation by the United Nations was in the passage vaguely suggesting a role for the secretary-general. The resolution’s omission of any clear proposal to continue monitoring human rights abuses in Cuba was its greatest failure. In effect the Commission on Human Rights washed its hands of the Cuban question.

What remains unclear is how decisively the Cuban government won. Even before the vote, as the prison sentences imposed on some human rights activists last November demonstrated, the Cuban government seemed intent on showing that the proceedings at the UN did not give anyone in Cuba the right to express dissent publicly. Three weeks after the vote, when the government not only arrested a small band of human rights activists during Gorbachev’s visit, but tried and sentenced some of them while many foreign journalists were still in Cuba, the message of the regime to the Cuban public seemed to be that Cuba no longer needed to worry about international public opinion and that no one should count on international influence to protect him if they stepped out of line.

But of course the Cuban government worries a great deal about international public opinion. It was obviously concerned to avoid condemnation by the UN Commission on Human Rights, even though the commission is a body that has no power to enforce its resolutions or to impose sanctions, and has not become a major force in international affairs. In dealing with the human rights disasters of the period since World War II, from Cambodia to Guatemala, the commission has not earned any particular distinction or moral authority. Still, Cuba would have been humiliated internationally if the commission had condemned it for human rights abuses; and to prevent such an outcome it invested much diplomatic effort, released hundreds of prisoners, improved prison conditions, admitted foreign delegations concerned with human rights to its prisons, and even permitted small independent human rights groups to emerge, although it harassed them from the first and continues to do so.

The Cubans imprisoned during the Gorbachev visit did not include Elizardo Sanchez, the leader of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. Since Ricardo Bofill, the head of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, left Cuba in 1988, Sanchez has been the best-known leader of the country’s tiny group of human rights activists. Sanchez and Bofill had both taught at the University of Havana; both had served prison sentences; and the two had jointly formed the Cuban Committee for Human Rights. They split in 1987, partly over charges that Bofill had published another man’s novel as his own. Bofill then alleged that Sanchez was a police agent. In their published denunciations of human rights abuses in Cuba the members of Bofill’s group claimed there were still 15,500 political prisoners in Cuba and that disappearances and secret executions continued to take place. Although Bofill gave hardly any details to back up these charges they were repeated in documents published by the US Department of State and in the speeches of US officials. The information supplied by Sanchez’s group, on the other hand, was on the whole consistent with the findings of Amnesty International and Americas Watch, both of which have published reports on Cuba during the past year.

With Bofill now living in Miami, most of the remaining human rights activists in Cuba have put aside their differences to form a coalition for which Sanchez serves as the spokesman. Sanchez has lost his job in a state library (he was not technically fired but was transferred to a library so far from his house that he couldn’t travel back and forth to work). Recently he was briefly detained for questioning. That his name is internationally known seems to have protected him from being arrested. What is happening to his followers recalls a pattern that is becoming familiar in many other countries, for example Chile and South Africa, where prominent leaders are left alone by the authorities and their lesser-known associates become the main targets for reprisals. The followers of Elizardo Sanchez’s group are now paying the price for Cuba’s victory at the United Nations.

They and many other Cubans will go on paying that price unless ways can be found to call attention to the human rights situation in Cuba now that the effort at the United Nations has been played out. We can now see that the exaggerations contained in the charges made by the US in 1987 and 1988 had both good and bad effects. They provoked the Cuban government to modify some of its harsh practices and to allow unprecedented visits to Cuban prisons by observers from human rights organizations. But the exaggerated claims by the US also helped Cuba to prevail in the UN and may have done lasting damage as well to the cause of human rights in Cuba. That twenty-two human rights activists have been imprisoned after their arrest since the UN delegation left Cuba last September may not sound so terrible to those who heard not long ago that Cuba was holding 15,000 political prisoners.

Human rights groups are well aware of the difficulties of trying to maintain public concern about abuses in countries that are said to be “improving,” as in El Salvador for example, where the body counts are smaller than they were eight or nine years ago, or in the Soviet Union, where the number of political prisoners has been reduced. Those still being killed in El Salvador, or still being held in Soviet prisons for peaceful expression or association, excite less international concern because the trend in their country is seen as favorable. The situation in Cuba was never of intense concern to many of those active in efforts to promote human rights elsewhere, partly because of hostility to right-wing Cuban exiles, who have been the most outspoken critics of repression in their homeland. Now it is all the more difficult to attract attention to political prisoners not only because their number is declining but also because they are in fact fewer by thousands than the US claimed two years ago.

By the time the Department of State issued its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1988 in February 1989, it had abandoned the exaggerated denunciations of Cuba that US representatives had made at the 1987 and 1988 sessions of the Commission on Human Rights and that had appeared—with attributions to Bofill, who was then still in Cuba—in the Country Reports for 1987 issued in February 1988. Yet in publishing a more realistic assessment in 1989, the State Department did not acknowledge its own previous exaggerations. A reader of the State Department’s latest account could have the impression that a vast reduction of abuses of human rights has taken place, whereas the actual reduction is more modest and the greatest change has been in the reliability of the charges made by the United States government.

It is hardly likely that any time soon Cuba will permit the free-ranging inspections of its prisons that took place in 1988 while a decision at the United Nations was pending. Though several representatives of Americas Watch were able to take part in visits to Cuba by other groups before the UN vote in March, Cuban authorities have since made it clear that Americas Watch as such is barred from Cuba. Amnesty International was permitted to send a delegation to Cuba while the UN deliberations were underway. Perhaps this will be allowed again because Amnesty International restricts its concerns to issues involving prisoners and to certain violent abuses, whereas Americas Watch’s broader mandate also includes civil liberties generally, and it is in this respect that the current Cuban practices are particularly vulnerable to condemnation.

If the Bush administration showed any interest in establishing regular diplomatic relations with Cuba or ending the trade embargo, it might be possible to draw attention to human rights there and perhaps gain access to the island. Similarly, if the Organization of American States were to consider readmitting Cuba, which was suspended in January 1962, its deliberations could also become a forum for the discussion of Cuban abuses. In either event, Cuban authorities would have to allow nongovernmental human rights investigators to visit if they sought favorable results. For the time being, however, neither of these prospects seems likely, even though it is increasingly difficult for the US to justify efforts to isolate Cuba internationally. Certainly, Cuba’s isolation from the US and the UN cannot be said to aid the cause of human rights; it has had the contrary effect. The main justification for the isolation of Cuba in the past was its effort to subvert other Latin American governments; but little convincing evidence has been produced to suggest that it is pursuing this course in most of South America today.

The question of human rights would, of course, become prominent once again if Cuba itself were to undergo a political transformation. That seems to be the most remote prospect of all. Unlike the Communist states in which large changes are underway, and new leaders have been able to blame their predecessors for economic and spiritual decline, Cuba has had the same dictator, with the same punitive attitude toward dissent and civil rights, for more than three decades. Moreover, Fidel Castro is younger and apparently far more robust than such other long-term dictators as Nicolae Ceauçescu in Romania and Kim II Sung in North Korea, who have also held out against the kinds of democratic changes implied by glasnost and perestroika. Accordingly, he is likely to be in power for much longer. With only members of their families permitted to emerge as potential successors—sons, in the cases of Ceauçescu and Kim, and, in Castro’s case, his brother Raul—these despots refuse to acknowledge changes that are sweeping most of the Communist world.

Efforts to protect human rights in Cuba will now depend largely on the bravery of the small band of activists within the country who are willing to subject themselves to firings and jailings, and on the ingenuity of groups outside the country that will attempt to call attention to the regime’s practices. Sadly, the task of all of these is harder now that the curtain has come down on the show at the United Nations.

Letters

The Case of Elizardo Sanchez December 7, 1989

Cuba’s Prisoners July 20, 1989

  1. *

    See my article “In Cuban Prisons,” The New York Review (June 30, 1988).

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