The circumstances created by the death of dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo have called into question the situation of human rights in Cuba by broad campaigns of vilification and retrenchment deployed on and off the island.
The critics go to the extreme of accusing the Cuban government of the premeditated murder of the dissident, something which is unthinkable (not only given the record of the Cuban State in that realm, but also for the evident complications in international and domestic relations that an outcome of this type would generate, something with which the experienced Cuban authorities are familiar and whose noxious effects are witnessed today).
On the other hand, the government’s defenders are resorting to de-legitimatization campaigns that deny the dignity of the deceased and his positions through a selective and distorted presentation of the pages of his life and his political arguments.
Such a stance is again assumed, despite the widespread rejection of the events surrounding the Mariel (1981) and Maleconazo (1994) boatlifts, or the use of civilians mobilized by the authorities behind the facade of “popular spontaneity” to repudiate or repress demonstrations by the mothers and wives of dissident prisoners. Such ploys, past and present, damage the country’s image and the public-spiritedness of its citizens.
A subject that remains taboo
To address the matter of humans rights in Cuba today continues to be essentially taboo. It’s avoided by a large part of academia (except for a handful of analyses by academics such as Hugo Azcuy and Dmitri Prieto) and only by a few institutions of the press, such as the noted magazine Temas, in a meritorious manner. They have raised the issue for debate, although with a certain imbalance that combines an excess of foreign theoretical examination and scant empirical grounding in the Cuban context.
The existence of two currents within the human rights movement is ignored in Cuba: a liberal one that appeals to individual rights within institutions and which calls for guarantees of representative democracy; and another one that accompanies the struggle for the respect of individuals with community social demands and the civic movements rejecting State authoritarianism and big business power.
On the other hand, human rights are identified as a mere “instrument of enemy campaigns” by the Cuban State, its agents and —thanks to disinformation, propaganda and official political culture.
There are no legally recognized human rights organizations listed in the Record of Associations of the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Cuba. The treatment of human rights on the island seems to clearly disregard the emancipatory capacity of them, which was demonstrated in social struggles against the pro-imperialist authoritarianism of the National Security Dictatorships in Latin America, and the governments of Ferdinand Marcos and Suharto in Asia.
Likewise, given its contribution to the collapse of the regimes of eastern Europe, human rights has been reduced to a component of the destabilization strategy of Carter, Reagan and Bush (senior) and is not seen as an expression of citizen’s movements, though it often combated the political monopolies of those bureaucrats who transformed themselves into the bourgeoisie.
An evident double standard exists
The Cuban state recognizes the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the activists of the World Social Forum, but it denies its citizens from exercising such activism.
It applauds (and uses in its arguments) reports by Amnesty International criticizing the real and constant violations committed by the brutal prison system in the USA and expressions of racism and xenophobia by that society. Likewise, it protests support that successive foreign governments continue giving to Israel and despotic regimes in the Middle East.
However, there is disapproval and silence around the arguments that those same human rights organizations make concerning violations by allied nations such as Zimbabwe, Iran, Russia, and China, or in Cuba itself, presenting these human rights organizations then as “agents of the Empire.”
For Cuban citizens it is virtually impossible (and punishable) to formally testify against, monitor or criticize any alleged human rights violation committed by officials or state institutions —on occasion contrary to its own 1992 socialist constitution— given the capacity for social control by the State and the subordination of the mass media to government directives.
These are activities condemned a priori, which result in putting into the same sack all independent activists linked to their communities or to recognized international NGOs, or simply people maintained by western embassies.
As has been said, the treatment of human rights should be consistent and non-selective.
It supposes the simultaneous recognition of the considerable social achievements of the Caribbean nation regarding health care, education, sports, social security and access to culture. These are achievements that guarantee the social safety net and the legitimacy of the revolutionary process and have been shared with dozens of fraternal peoples over a half century.
But we must also recognize that limitations to the rights of free expression, meeting, association, movement and economic and community self-management that exist on the island, which are examples of the monopolizing and co-opting concept of the State – when faced by society and its autonomous organizing capabilities.
The problem is structural (as it is in other spheres) and can be summarized graphically contrasting the precariousness of the State of Law —in which citizens can exercise rights guaranteed by their constitution and protected from bureaucratic abuse— to a wide, arbitrary and daily execution of the Rights of the State, lacking democratic control and popular feedback.
Only with an expansion of popular participation —with institutions that are democratic, effective and controlled by the organized citizenry, and with the establishment of rights as the main principle of the State’s operation and social coexistence— will we be able to perfect Cuba’s revolutionary process. Only this will halt the authoritarian drift and neo-liberal restoration, which is the background threatening serious social and ideological crisis. And contrary to what they would make us believe, this does not mean restoring the bourgeoisie nor surrendering to the US.
From a vision from the left —one that gathers Lenin’s warnings about the need to delimit the arbitrariness of the State (including its police institutions); the phrase of Rosa Luxemburg, who defended freedom, even for those for thought differently; or the ethics of Jose Marti, who put the rights and dignity of all individuals and peoples on a pedestal— compels another look at human rights in Cuba.
This is an examination that makes it inconceivable for there to be silence (disguised as solidarity by a sector of the left) towards the human rights situation in our country. At the same time, it rejects mechanical and opportunist affiliations with campaigns orchestrated from western chancelleries and centers of the international right. Both must be overcome for the good of all Cubans and the future of socialism, sovereignty and justice on this Caribbean island.