Cuba and the number of “political prisoners”

Autumn 2010

Salim Lamrani discusses the controversial question

The question of the number of “political prisoners” in Cuba is subject to controversy. According to the Cuban government, there are no political prisoners in Cuba, rather they are people convicted of crimes listed in the penal code, particularly the act of receiving funding from a foreign power.

In its 2010 report, Amnesty International (AI) describes “55 prisoners of conscience”, of whom 20 were released in July 2010, followed by another six on August 15, 2010 after mediation by the Catholic Church and Spain, and later another two. Thus, according to AI, there are currently 27 “political prisoners” in Cuba. [Since this article was written this number has fallen to 13, with the remainder due for release by 8 November.] Finally, the Cuban opposition and, more precisely, Elizardo Sánchez of the Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CDHRN) put the number at 147 political prisoners, minus the 6 recently freed, in other words, 141. The Western media favour this latter list.

First, before raising the question of the exact number of “political prisoners” in Cuba, it is worth clarifying one aspect of this issue, i.e., the existence or non-existence of financing of the Cuban opposition by the United States.

US history of funding unrest

This policy, carried out clandestinely from 1959 to 1991, is now public and confirmed by many sources. Indeed, Washington has acknowledged this fact in various documents and official statements. The 1992 Torricelli law, in particular section 1705, states that “the United States Government may provide assistance, through appropriate nongovernmental organisations, for the support of individuals and organisations to promote nonviolent democratic change in Cuba.” The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 provides in Section 109 that “the President [of the United States] is authorised to furnish assistance and provide other support for individuals and independent nongovernmental organisations to support democracy-building efforts for Cuba.”

The first report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba proposed the development of a “solid support program that promotes Cuban civil society.” Among the measures envisaged was funding, totaling $36 million dollars, destined to “supporting the democratic opposition and strengthening an emerging civil society.” The second report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba proposed a budget of $31 million to further finance the internal opposition. The plan also provided for “the training and equipping of independent print, radio, and TV journalists in Cuba.”

The US diplomatic mission in Havana - the US Interests Section (USINT) - has confirmed this in a statement: “The US policy has long been to provide humanitarian assistance to the Cuban people, specifically to families of political prisoners. We also allow private organisations to do the same.”

Groups admit US backing

Laura Pollán, of the dissident group “Ladies in White”, admits receiving money from the US: “We accept help, support, from the extreme right to the left, without conditions.” The opposition leader Vladimiro Roca admits that Cuban dissidents are subsidized by Washington, claiming that the financial assistance received is “totally and completely legal.” For the dissident René Gómez, financial support from the United States “is not something that has to be hidden nor that we have to be ashamed of.” Similarly, government opponent Elizardo Sánchez confirmed the existence of US financing: “The key point is not who sent the aid, but what is done with the aid.”

The Western press admits this reality. Agence France-Presse reported that “the dissidents, for their part, appeal for and accept such financial assistance. The Spanish news agency EFE refers to “opponents paid by the United States.” According to the British press agency Reuters, “the US government openly provides federally-funded support for dissident activities, which Cuba considers an illegal act.”

The US newsgathering agency Associated Press says that the policy of manufacturing and financing internal opposition is not new: “Over the years, the US government has spent many millions of dollars to support Cuba’s opposition”. It states, “Part of the funding comes directly from the US government, whose laws promote the overthrow of the Cuban government.”

Illegal and unwise

Wayne S. Smith is a former diplomat who was head of the US Interests Section in Havana from 1979 to 1982. According to him, it is completely “illegal and unwise to send money to the Cuban dissidents”. He added that, “No one should give money to the dissidents, much less for the purpose of overthrowing the Cuban government” since “when the US declares its objective is to overthrow the government of Cuba and later admits that one of the means of achieving that goal is to provide funds to the Cuban dissidents, these dissidents finds themselves de facto in the position of agents paid by a foreign power to overthrow their own government.”

AI contradictions

Let’s recall now the position of Amnesty International. The organisation speaks of 27 “political prisoners” in Cuba as of August 15, 2010. Nevertheless, at the same time AI recognises that these individuals were charged for having “received funds and/or materials from the United States government in order to engage in activities the authorities perceived as subversive and damaging to Cuba”. Thus, the organisation found itself in a contradiction, in that international law considers the financing of the internal opposition in another sovereign nation to be illegal. Every country in the world has a judicial arsenal establishing the illegality of such conduct. US and European laws, among others, strongly sanction the act of receiving funds from a foreign power.

The list put together by Elizardo Sánchez (pictured) is longer and includes all sorts of individuals. Among the 141 names, ten were freed due to health, leaving a total of 131 people. With regard to these 10 individuals, Sánchez explained that he keeps them on the list because they could be jailed again in the future. Another four individuals served their sentences and left prison. Thus 127 people remain. Another 27 people are to be released prior to October, according to the agreement signed between Havana, Spain, and the Catholic Church.

Of the 100 remaining individuals, about half were imprisoned for violent crimes. Some carried out armed incursions into Cuba and at least two of them, Humberto Eladio Real Suárez and Ernesto Cruz León, are responsible for the deaths of various civilians in 1994 and 1997 respectively.

Freedom for terrorists?

Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the Cuban Parliament, emphasised these contradictions, “Curiously, our critics talk about a list... Why don’t they explain that they are asking for freedom for the person who murdered Fabio di Celmo?” [Fabio is the Italian tourist killed by a terrorist bomb place in a Havana hotel in 1997.]

The Associated Press (AP) also emphasised the dubious nature of Sánchez’s list and indicates that “some of those would not normally be seen as political prisoners.” “But a closer look will find bombers, hijackers and intelligence agents.” The AP points out that among the 100 people, “about half were convicted of terrorism, hijacking or other violent crimes, and four are former military or intelligence agents convicted of espionage or revealing state secrets.”

For its part, Amnesty International confirms that it can not consider the people on Sanchez’s list to be “prisoners of conscience” because it includes “people brought to trial for terrorism, espionage and those who tried, or actually succeeded, in blowing up hotels”, according to the organisation. “We certainly would not call for their release or describe them as prisoners of conscience.”

Miguel Moratinos, the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, who played a pivotal role in the agreement for the liberation of the 52 prisoners, also has called into question the validity of Sánchez’s list and has underscored its imprecise character: “They don’t say that 300 must be freed, because there are not 300. The Cuban Human Rights Commission’s own list, a week before I arrived there, spoke of there being 202. The day before I arrived in Cuba, the Commission said there were 167.”

After the freeing of the other 27 persons included in the June 2010 agreement, there will remain only one “political prisoner” in Cuba, Rolando Jiménez Pozada, according to Amnesty International. The Associated Press for its part points out that in fact this individual is “jailed on charges of disobedience and revealing state secrets.”

Western media bias

Curiously, the list developed by Sánchez, which is the least reliable of the lists and which has been criticised from all sides due to the inclusion of individuals convicted of grave acts of terrorism, is favored by the western press.

The Cuban government has made a notable gesture by proceeding to free prisoners considered to be “political prisoners” by the US and some organisations, such as Amnesty International. The primary obstacle to the normalisation of relations between Washington and Havana - from the point of view of the Obama government - no longer exists. That being the case, it is up to the White House to make a reciprocal gesture and put an end to the anachronistic and ineffective economic sanctions against the Cuban people.

(Translated by David Brookbank)

Salim Lamrani is a university lecturer at the University Paris-Sorbonne-Paris IV and the University Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée and a French journalist, specialist on the relationship between Cuba and the United States. Lamrani has just published Cuba. Ce que les médias ne vous diront jamais (Paris: éditions Estrella, 2009).

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