Cuba Blasted by Human Rights Group

Jim Lobe

I live in a free country  Photo: Caridad
"I live in a free country" Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 18 – On the eve of an open hearing Thursday on the US travel ban forbidding its citizens from visiting Cuba, Human Rights Watch came out with another of its scathing reports lambasting Cuba’s human rights record.  Journalist Jim Lobe brings us a detailed report:

Washington (IPS) – While Cuban President Raul Castro has implemented some economic and administrative reforms, his three-year-old government has continued to isolate and persecute political dissidents, according to a major new report released here Wednesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“In his three years in power, Raul Castro has been just as brutal as his brother (Fidel),” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, HRW’s veteran Americas director. “Cubans who dare to criticise the government live in perpetual fear, knowing they could wind up in prison for merely expressing their views.”

The 123-page report, “New Castro, Same Cuba”, comes on the eve of an unprecedented hearing by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives on legislation that would end the nearly 50-year ban on travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba. The legislation currently has 180 co-sponsors, and many observers believe the House could approve it some time early next year.

While the new report is expected to be used as ammunition by anti-Castro lawmakers led by Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to argue against any moves that would relax the U.S. embargo, Vivanco stressed that HRW favors lifting both the travel ban and the embargo as part of a strategy designed to enlist Europe and Latin America in a concerted effort to press Havana to grant its citizens more freedoms.

“The embargo has failed and must be changed,” he said.

“Rather than isolating Cuba, the policy has isolated the United States, enabling the Castro government to garner sympathy abroad while simultaneously alienating Washington’s potential allies,” the report noted.

It said the U.S. should work to secure commitments from the European Community (EU), Canada, and Latin American countries to collectively demand that Cuba release all political prisoners within six months or introduce diplomatic and financial sanctions targeted against the country’s leadership.

“Ultimately, it is the Raul Castro government that bears responsibility for such abuses û and has the power to address them,” the report said. “Yet as the last three years of Raul Castro’s rule show, Cuba will not improve its human rights record unless it is pressured to do so.”

Rainy day in Havana.  Photo: Caridad
Rainy day in Havana. Photo: Caridad

Among the prisoners who should be freed, according to HRW, are 53 dissidents and rights activists who remain in prison after their arrest during a major crackdown by the government in 2003 and dozens of others who have been incarcerated for the crime of “dangerousness”, one of a number of “pre-criminal” offences that constitute the legal foundation for prosecuting dissidents.

Cuba’s criminal code defines “dangerousness” as “the special proclivity of a person to commit crimes, demonstrated by conduct that is observed to be in manifest contradiction with the norms of socialist morality”.

The state’s use of “dangerousness” to prosecute dissidents has increased sharply under Raul, according to the report.

“What has changed is that Raul Castro’s government has increasingly relied on the ‘dangerousness’ provision in Cuban law,” said Nik Steinberg, the lead researcher of the report, which documented more than 40 cases in which the government used the offence to imprison individuals for exercising their basic rights.

Ramon Velasquez Toranzo, for example, set off with his wife and daughter on a peaceful march across Cuba to promote human rights for political prisoners only to be arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for “dangerousness” in January 2007.

Similarly, Raymundo Perdigon Brito was convicted of “dangerousness” and sentenced to four years in December 2006.  A journalist, he had written articles documenting abuses by the government and published them on foreign websites, according to the report, which added that he suffered repeated beatings by guards and solitary confinement in prison.

In yet another case, Juan Luis Rodriguez Desdin was sentenced to four years in prison in July 2006 for working with a group that documented rights abuses and speaking openly about democratic change. He was released in July 2008 but, after resuming his rights work, has been detained several times and warned that his parole could be revoked if he continued.

In some cases, “dangerousness” has been applied to individuals who failed to attend political rallies or who were not working.

But “dangerousness” is only one of a number of offences, including contempt and insubordination, used by the government to criminalize dissent, according to the report, which was based on two unauthorized trips to Cuba and than 60 interviews with former political prisoners, rights defenders, journalists, clergy, and other civil-society members on the island.

Havana Mural.  photo: Caridad
Havana Mural. photo: Caridad

One of them, Rodolfo Bartelemi Coba, was arrested 10 days after the interview and taken to prison where he remains, according to the report.

In addition to sentencing dissenters to prison, frequently in summary trials lacking any semblance of due process, the government has continued to use a number of practices to enforce political conformity, including beatings, short-term detentions, public repudiation, and the denial of work, according to the report.

“Cuba’s systematic repression has created a pervasive climate of fear among dissidents and, when it comes to expression of political views, in Cuban society as a whole,” the report said. “This climate of fear has led to the near-complete isolation of dissidents from their communities, friends, and sometimes even families, which together with other forms of repression has had profound emotional consequences.”

At the same time, some outlets for dissent have become more available under Raul, according to the report which noted his tenure has seen the emergence of “an independent Cuban blogosphere, critical lyrics by musicians, and most recently a series of government-organized public meetings to reflect on Cuban socialism.”

But these outlets were very limited in terms of their possible impact on Cuban society, it said. Only a tiny fraction of Cubans had access to the Internet; some bands have been harassed, their performances cancelled or their songs banned from broadcast; and the public meetings are explicitly forbidden to discuss reforming Cuba’s one-party system.

Calls to the Cuban Interests Section here for comment on the report went unanswered.

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