Subdued Response to Cuban’s Death

Humberto Márquez

Havana Park. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, March 3 (IPS) — The deafening silence of Latin American governments has fallen like another shovelful of earth on the grave of Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata, a bricklayer who died Feb. 23 after nearly three months on hunger strike in prison on the Caribbean island.

“Human rights problems exist all over the world,” said Marco Aurelio Garcia, foreign affairs adviser to leftwing Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who said for his part that he “deeply regretted that a person should let himself die by hunger strike, which was something I did when I was a trade unionist but would not do again.”

Only Chile’s rightwing President-elect Sebastian Piñera issued a statement harshly condemning the circumstances surrounding the death of Zapata, who he said “gave his life to defend democracy and freedom in Cuba.”

Studiedly neutral statements were made in other countries, like that of Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño, who said “we regret the death of this gentleman (Zapata) as we will always regret the death of any human being. But I would rather not comment on the concrete issue of the prisoners held in Cuba.”

The United States and the European Union condemned Zapata’s death and called for the immediate release of 200 persons regarded by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights, a dissident group in Cuba, as prisoners of conscience, or political prisoners, a classification systematically denied by the government in Havana.

The regional political agenda has been busy, packed with meetings between presidents for different reasons, such as the earthquake in Chile or the swearing-in of the new Uruguayan President José Mujica, after a summit held February in Mexico that approved the creation of a Community of Latin American and Caribbean States that includes Cuba but expressly excludes Canada and the United States.

Rejection of isolationism

The region “kept silence as if to avoid embarrassing Cuba and President Raul Castro when he had just announced this OAS-style (Organization of American States) group without Canada and the United States,” María Teresa Romero, a professor of International Studies at the Central University of Venezuela, told IPS.

“This is nothing new; it’s the strategy of assimilation and pacification as opposed to isolationism, that Latin America and the Caribbean have followed before in relation to Havana, thinking that a more permissive approach and co-opting Cuba will be a more effective means of guiding it along the path to democracy,” Romero added.

Tomas Bilbao, a member of the Cuba Study Group in Washington, founded in 2000 to monitor policies on Cuba, said that the silence about Zapata reflects “the double-think of the leftwing leaders who predominate in the region, who believe that criticizing Cuba means backing the White House.”

Cuban historian Rafael Rojas, who lives in Mexico, said the Havana government “made a fine calculation of the reactions likely to arise from the United States and the European Union, in contrast with the very few words they expected from Latin America.”

These views support statements by Zapata’s family members and human rights organizations like Amnesty International, who claim the government “let him die” by denying him recognition as a political prisoner, treating him harshly and punishing him in prison, and providing medical care only when it was already too late.

Raul Castro’s Regrets Death

During a visit by the Brazilian president to Havana, the day after Zapata died Raul Castro told Brazilian journalists in Lula’s entourage that he regretted Zapata’s demise, adding “no one is tortured, no one has been tortured, there was no execution. That sort of thing happens in Guantánamo,” referring to the U.S. naval base in eastern Cuba where prisoners of war have been held for years.

Former president Fidel Castro, who also met with Lula, wrote: “Lula has known for many years that in our country, nobody was every tortured, no adversary’s assassination was ever ordered, and the people have never been lied to.”

Venezuelan political scientist Carlos Raul Hernandez told IPS that “the behaviors adopted in response to Zapata’s hunger strike and death illustrates the struggle between the political stances represented by the two Castro brothers who lead Cuba.”

According to Hernandez, “Raul would probably like to advance towards more openness, at first on the economic front, as has happened in China and Vietnam, but Fidel may have persuaded him of the dilemma between giving, or not giving, signs of weakness or retreat, by Cuba of all countries, right now when the revolution has made strides in Latin America.”

Hernandez was alluding to Cuba sympathizers along with their socialist discourse who have attained positions of power, particularly Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia and, to a lesser extent, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

Other governments may have kept mum to avoid further inflaming the conflict between supporters of Raul and Fidel Castro’s political lines, opting instead for a strategy of pacification, he said.

“The hardening of Havana’s political line means that Fidel Castro – who gave up the presidency for health reasons – has recovered power in Cuba, with the support of Venezuela,” which has cooperation and trade agreements with the island amounting to billions of dollars, in Hernandez’s view.

In July 2011, Venezuela will host the next Latin America and Caribbean Summit, which could see the inauguration of the new community of nations.

“But what will this non-OAS community be like without a democratic charter, without a convention on human rights and bodies to enforce them?”  Simon Alberto Consalvi wondered. A former Venezuelan foreign minister, he was one of the architects of the Contadora Group working for peace in Central America in the 1980s.

The original Contadora Group created in 1983, made up of Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela, soon grew to a total of eight democratic states, and gave rise to the Rio Group, the region’s main policy-sharing body that has expanded until the admission of Cuba last year, and now forms the basis of the new regional community of states.

Romero said “it appears, in fact, that the Rio Group is the model some people prefer for the new community of nations, as it is more informal and lacks the commitments and institutional basis of the OAS.”

President Chavez has no such doubts, and recently repeated that “the OAS is no longer of any use, one day it will disappear,” while the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean should create a joint mechanism “based on transparent relations founded on respect for the sovereignty of each country and on non-interference with internal affairs.”

Cuba was expelled from the OAS in 1962, and has repeatedly said it has no interest in rejoining the inter-American organization, even though the hemispheric body voted in 2009 to revoke Cuba’s suspension.