Raúl: more of the same?
Despite 'Raúlistroika' and the signing of two key UN charters, Cuba
remains a long way from granting its citizens full human rights
Emilio Viano and J Paul Johnson
May 21, 2008 7:00 AM
During Soviet times factory workers reportedly quipped: "They pretend to
pay us, and we pretend to work." This axiom applies well to current
events in Cuba, modified as: "The Castros pretend to give us freedom,
and we pretend to be free." However, dire consequences await those
willing to test their freedoms despite Cuba's recent signing of two UN
covenants guaranteeing inalienable human rights: the covenant on civil
and political rights (CCPR) and the covenant on economic, social, and
cultural rights. Was the signing truly an indication of what some have
called a "Raúlistroika" or a Cuban glasnost?
Regrettably the answer is an authoritarian "No."
Despite the new "freedoms" – to buy some DVDs, computers, and mobile
phones, costing at times a year's salary, and to have access to tourist
hotels once only open to visitors carrying foreign currency, preferably
euros – Cubans are by and in large still under the same repressive
tyranny as they have been for all of Fidel's 49-year despotism. The face
may have changed, but there is no doubt Raúl is continuing his sibling's
harsh repression of basic human rights rather than something more
A recent example is that of the Ladies in White, dragged away and beaten
on April 21 by Castro's forces while staging a sit-in alongside Havana's
Revolution Square to plea for the release of their relatives arrested in
the dramatic political crackdown of 2003.
On March 18 2003, the Cuban authorities arrested scores of dissidents in
targeted sweeps. Some 75 of them were subjected to hasty and manifestly
unfair trials in April 2003 and quickly sentenced to long prison terms
of up to 28 years. Most appealed their sentences in vain. And just last
week, before the national assembly, Raúl Castro had the temerity to
utter that there has been "not one sole case of torture" in Cuba. A
former political prisoner, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, told the Miami
Herald " … there is not one sole case of torture, but rather there are
thousands and thousands … with the most open impunity … "
Among the substantive questions begging to be asked is what of the
nearly 200 political prisoners being held? Amnesty International has
labeled them prisoners of conscience. Cuban officials label them "Yankee
mercenaries." And what freedoms do Cubans truly possess now after the
two UN charters have been signed (with reservations)?
The CCPR guarantees, among other freedoms and rights, 1) civil and
political freedom, 2) the right to self determination, 3) peaceful
assembly, 4) freedom of religion, 5) privacy, 6) the freedom to leave a
country, and 7) equal protection before the law. At best, in Cuba now
there is freedom of religion. Beyond that, nearly 12 million Cubans
still cannot exercise the human rights enjoyed by their neighbours.
Yet there is a strong yearning for freedom in Cuba. An opinion poll
carried out by the International Republican Institute in the Autumn of
2007 showed that a majority of Cubans (75.6%) think that political
democratic changes in their country would improve their daily lives.
When asked if they would prefer a political system where people could
choose from candidates of different parties, 76.3% said they would like
to choose. The younger or more educated the interviewee, the more he or
she supported political and economic changes, multiparty elections and
the right to vote to decide who should succeed Fidel Castro.
May 21, the day after Independence Day, is Cuba Solidarity Day. Its
celebration will not be sanctioned, but brave members of Cuban civil
society will quietly gather in spite of the regime's ubiquitous general
directorate for state security trying to ferret out these proponents of
freedom. These associations of professionals, students, and families
will be buoyed by the support they will receive when the spotlight
shines upon their sacrifices to obtain still elusive basic freedoms.
On May 21, a clear message must be sent to Raúl Castro that the time for
a true transition is here. Cuba must live up to its obligations
undertaken under the CCPR and the inter-American democratic charter. The
release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience such as Oscar
Biscet, Ricardo Alfonso, Diosdado Morero, and others would be a good start.
Their release would signify that real change is beginning on an island
where everyone is guaranteed a toaster by 2010 while the few computers
still lack an internet connection to the outside world and where, most
of all, true freedom is still missing.