Cuba and the rhetoric of human rights (1 of 2)

News from Cuba | Wednesday, 7 July 2010

By Salim Lamrani

An initial finding

In the West, the name Cuba is inevitably associated with the issue of human rights. European and U.S. media stigmatize the largest island in the Caribbean repeatedly on this matter. No other country in the Americas is so singled out as is the homeland of José Martí, which is subject to media coverage disproportionate to its size. In fact, events that would go unnoticed elsewhere in Latin America or the world are spread immediately by the international press when it comes to Cuba.

Thus, the February 2010 suicide of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a prisoner convicted of common crimes in Cuba, was pounced upon by the media much more than the discovery in January 2010 of a mass grave containing 2,000 bodies of trade unionists and human rights activists killed by the Colombian army. Likewise, the protests by Cuban opponents appear regularly in the Western press which, at the same time, censors the atrocities - more than 500 cases of killings and disappearances! - committed by the Honduran military junta, first under Roberto Micheletti and later under Porfirio Lobo, which currently rules that country following the June 2009 coup d'etat against its democratically elected president, Jose Maneul Zelaya. 1

The United States officially justified the imposition of economic sanctions, in place since July 1960 and which affect all sectors of Cuban society, particularly the most vulnerable, based on violations of human rights. From 1960 to 1991, Washington had said that the alliance with the Soviet Union was the reason for its hostility towards Cuba. Since the collapse of the Eastern bloc, different administrations from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama have used the rhetoric of human rights to explain the anachronistic state of siege, which far from affecting Cuba's leaders, imposes the cost of the two nation's political differences upon the elderly, women and children. 2

For its part and using the same rationale, the European Union has imposed its Common Position - the only one in the world! - upon the Cuban government since 1996, limiting bilateral exchanges. This stigmatization is the pillar of foreign policy of Brussels towards Havana and represents the principle obstacle to the normalization of bilateral relations. Between 2003 and 2008, the European Union also imposed political, diplomatic and cultural sanction on Cuba, at least officially, for the same reasons. 3

A legitimate stigma?

This is not to say that Cuba is beyond reproach in the matter of human rights nor that it has not committed any violations. Indeed, Cuba is far from being a perfect society and there are some attacks on certain fundamental rights.

However, one must ask why there is such stigmatization by Western media, the U.S. and the European Union. Does Cuba in fact represents a special situation with respect to human rights? Is it worse than the rest of the continent? Are Washington, Brussels and the Western media genuinely concerned about it? Do they really have sufficient moral authority to set themselves up as judges?

To answer these questions, the 2010 report by Amnesty International (AI) provides an interesting focus. Ten countries will be subjected to a comparative analysis, five on the American continent (Canada, United States, Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia) and five from the European Union (France, Germany, UK, Spain and the Czech Republic, which is at the forefront of nations opposing the normalization of relations with Cuba). 4

Human rights in Cuba

According to AI, "Civil and political rights continued to be severely restricted by the authorities" in Cuba. AI refers to "55 prisoners of conscience [] detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression." 5 In a statement on March 18, 2008, AI nevertheless acknowledged that these people were condemned "for having received funds or materials from the U.S. government to carry out activities that the authorities consider subversive and damaging to Cuba", which constitutes a criminal offense in Cuba and as well as in every other country in the world. 6

The organization also notes that "many [opponents] reported that they were beaten during arrest." Severe restrictions still weigh on freedom of expression, according to AI, since "all mass media and the internet remained under state control." Moreover, the websites of the opposition are blocked in Cuba and can only be viewed from outside the country. Several dissidents were arrested and later released. AI also condemns acts of intimidation against the opposition. Furthermore, "restrictions on freedom of movement prevented journalists and human rights and political activists from carrying out legitimate and peaceful activities." Thus, the opposition figure Yoani Sanchez has not received permission to leave the country to receive an award in the United States. 7

Nevertheless, AI point out that in May 2009 Cuba "was re-elected to the [UN] Human Rights Council for another three-year term", thus illustrating that most of the international community does not shares the view of Brussels and Washington regarding the human rights situation in Cuba. 8

Finally, AI recognizes that U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba "continued to have a detrimental impact on the economic and social rights of Cubans. US legislation restricting exports of US manufactured or patented supplies and equipment to Cuba continued to hinder access to medicine and medical technologies." U.S. law restricting exports to the island of products and materials manufactured or patented in the United States continues to hinder access to medicines and medical equipment." AI adds that United Nations agencies present in Cuba also are "also effected by the embargo." 9

Thus, as illustrated in the AI report, Cuba is not irreproachable in terms of respect for human rights.

Human rights in the Americas

It makes sense at this point to put the Cuban reality into perspective in the context of the rest of the continent.

United States

According to AI, 198 people remain illegally detained at the naval base at Guantanamo, without charges, for the last seven years. At least five inmates committed suicide at the Guantanamo prison. Moreover, several prisoners were tried by military tribunals that did not provide all the guarantees of a fair trial. 10

Furthermore, "the US military continued to hold hundreds of detainees, including a number of children, without access to lawyers or the courts at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan." 11

AI also denounced the "program of secret CIA detention" and disclosed the "acts of torture and other forms of mistreatment inflicted on detainees." AI cites two examples: "The techniques included forced nudity, prolonged sleep deprivation, and waterboarding (simulated drowning). [] Abu Zubaydah [] had been waterboarded more than 80 times in August 2002, and Khaled Sheikh Mohammed some 183 times in March 2003." The authors of these acts will not be legally prosecuted, according to statements by Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. 12

AI notes that "impunity and the absence of legal remedies persisted for human rights violations perpetrated in the context of what the Bush administration called the 'war on terror'." The organization added that "the new administration moved to block publication of a number of photographs depicting abuse of detainees in U.S. custody in Afghanistan and Iraq." 13

AI also denounced alleged acts of "torture and other mistreatment" committed by security forces in United States territory against U.S. citizens. "At least 47 people died after being struck by police Tasers, bringing to more than 390 the number of such deaths since 2001." AI adds that "among them were three unarmed teenagers involved in minor incidents and an apparently healthy man who was shocked for 49 continuous seconds by police in Fort Worth, Texas, in May 2009." 14

The international organization points a finger at the conditions of detention in the United States. According to AI, "Thousands of prisoners were held in long-term isolation in US super-maximum security prisons, where conditions in many cases fell short of international standards for humane treatment." Thus, "scores of prisoners, [] many of them mentally ill, had spent 10 or more years confined to solitary cells for 23 hours a day, with inadequate treatment or review of their status." These prisoners "had no work, educational or recreational programs and little contact with the outside world." 15

According to AI, "tens of thousands of migrants, including asylum seekers, were routinely detained, in violation of international standards. Many were held in harsh conditions and had inadequate access to health care, exercise and legal assistance." 16

Moreover, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions denounced several cases of extrajudicial executions committed by security forces against migrants. The number of deaths in custody is more than "the 74 officially recorded since 2003," reported AI. 17

AI points to discrimination in terms of access to health against women belonging to minorities. Thus, "the number of preventable deaths from pregnancy-related complications remained high, costing the lives of hundreds of women during the year. There were inequalities in access to maternal health care based on income, race, ethnicity or national origin, with African American women nearly four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white women." AI adds that 52 million people under age 65 are uninsured, "a rise over the previous year." 18

According to AI, a conscientious objector was sentenced to one year in prison for refusing to serve in Afghanistan. The organization also denounced the unjust trials against Leonard Peltier, imprisoned for 32 years, "despite concerns about the fairness of his 1977 conviction." AI also noted that the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider the appeal filed by five Cuban political prisoners - Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González - sentenced to long prison terms while "in May 2005, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had stated that their detention was arbitrary because of the failure to guarantee them a fair trial." 19

Finally, the death penalty still applies in the United States. As such, 52 people were executed in 2009. 20


The situation in Brazil is also the subject of a report. AI mentions "excessive use of force, extrajudicial executions and torture by police officers." The police "continued to commit extensive violations" and "hundreds of killings were not properly investigated and little, if any, judicial action was taken." Thus, "in Rio de Janeiro, police killed 1048 people in 2009." In Sao Paulo, "the comparable figure was 543, an increase of 36 per cent over 2008." Moreover, "killings by military police increased by 41 per cent." 21

The organization also denounced "the spread of militias - armed paramilitary-style groups made up largely by off-duty law enforcement officials -" who are "using their power over communities for illicit economic and political gain" and have "threatened the lives of thousands of residents and the very institutions of the state." 22

In Brazil, "detainees continued to be held in cruel, inhuman or degrading conditions. Torture was regularly used in interrogation, for purposes of extortion or to punish, control or humiliate. Torture was regularly used as a method of interrogation, punishment, control, humiliation and extortion", according to AI, in addition to the problem of over-population. 23

Moreover, "conflict over land continued to generate human rights abuses committed by both gunmen hired by farm owners and by police officers." At least 20 people were murdered in 2009. 24

According to AI, workers' rights were violated and "thousands of workers were found to be held in conditions deemed analogous to slavery under national law." The right to adequate housing is not upheld. Moreover, "serious violations of the rights of populations continue to be committed in the State of Mato Grosso do Sul." AI highlights several cases of the disappearance of Indian militants. 25


According to AI, the Canadian authorities have "failed to ensure respect for Indigenous rights when issuing licenses for mining, logging and petroleum and other resource extraction. The government continued to make baseless claims that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples does not apply in Canada." 26

The organization also alleged discrimination against indigenous people and particularly children. Moreover, the non-consensual exploitation of oil and gas found in the lands of the Lubicon Cree has contributed to "to high levels of poor health and poverty." 27

The rights of women are regularly violated in Canada. Thus, "the high level of violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls persisted" and "the Canadian government took no steps towards establishing [] a comprehensive national action plan to address the violence and the underlying discrimination that contributes to it." 28

Canada was also complicit in acts of torture by handing over suspects to the Afghan authorities in the context of the fight against terrorism. 29

Moreover, police forces committed murder by means of electric shock utilizing tasers. 30


In Colombia, the civilian population is victim of "forced displacement, killings of civilians, sexual violence against women, hostage-taking, enforced disappearances, forced recruitment of minors and indiscriminate attacks" committed by security forces, paramilitaries and guerrillas. 31

AI recorded 20,000 cases of forced disappearances and 286,000 cases of displaced persons. The organization emphasizes that "the government refused to support a bill, the Victims’ Law, which would have granted reparation to victims of the conflict on the basis of nondiscrimination, regardless of whether the perpetrator was an agent of the state or not. The bill was rejected by Congress in June." 32

Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people described the situation of the rights of indigenous peoples in Colombia as "grave, critical and profoundly worrying". AI says that "more than 114 Indigenous men, women and children were killed in 2009, an increase compared with 2008." 33

The Administrative Department of Security (DAS), which operates under the direct authority of the head of State, is involved in "massive, long-standing, illegal espionage against human rights defenders, opposition politicians, judges and journalists to restrict or neutralize their work. The operation was reportedly carried out in close co-operation with paramilitary groups. Members of the diplomatic community in Colombia and international human rights defenders were also targeted." AI further notes that "some of the activists intercepted by the DAS had been subjected to death threats and spurious criminal charges." 34

In 2009, 80 members of Congress were subject to a "legal investigation for alleged links with paramilitary groups." Several judges involved in the investigation received death threats, according to AI. 35

The security forces committed more than 2,000 extrajudicial killings. "The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings said that extrajudicial executions 'were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military'." The army continues to work with paramilitary groups, which are guilty of "massacres." At least eight human rights defenders and 39 trade unionists were murdered in 2009. AI notes that "impunity for human rights violations remained a serious concern." 36


In Mexico, more than 6,500 people were killed in violence linked to drug trafficking. AI reports "human rights violations - including extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other ill treatment and arbitrary detention - committed by members of the military increased." The organization adds that "some victims and relatives who tried to file complaints received threats" and AI deplored "the impunity enjoyed by those responsible." 37

AI says that "there were several reports of human rights violations, including enforced disappearance; excessive use of force; torture and other ill-treatment; and arbitrary detention committed by municipal, state and federal police." Moreover, "government commitments to investigate all allegations of torture were not implemented." 38

Migrants were also victims of the Mexican authorities. Migrants suffered "beatings, threats, abduction, rape and murder, mainly by criminal gangs, but also by some public officials." AI also emphasizes that two Indigenous human rights defenders "were abducted, tortured and murdered in Ayutla." AI also notes that "Raúl Hernández, a prisoner of conscience and activist with another local Indigenous rights organization, remained in prison on a fabricated murder charge at the end of the year." 39

In Mexico, several journalists were threatened, assaulted and abducted, according to AI, particularly those "working on issues related to public safety issues and corruption." At least 12 journalists were murdered in 2009. Moreover, "investigations into killings, abductions and threats rarely led to the prosecution of those responsible, contributing to a climate of impunity." 40

AI denounced the discrimination and violence committed against indigenous peoples dispossessed of their land and their homes by the authorities, "in order to exploit local resources." 41

Women and girls are constantly victims of violence. "Scores of cases of murder in which women had been abducted and raped were reported in Chihuahua and Mexico states," says AI. At the same time, "impunity for murder and other violent crimes against women remained the norm." Moreover, 17 of 31 Mexican states refused to apply the law decriminalizing abortion. 42


The Amnesty International report is enlightening in several respects. First, we discover that although the organization emphasizes some violations of human rights in Cuba, the Caribbean island is far from being the bad boy of the continent. This finding casts doubt on the stigmatization of Havana by the western media, Washington and Brussels.

Thus, the western media has misled the public when it presents Cuba as the main violator of human rights in the Americas. The United States, for its part, cannot in any way justify the imposition of economic sanctions based on the human rights situation on the island and should eliminate them. Indeed, not only does the US have no moral authority to speak on this subject in view of its own situation, but in addition most countries on the continent have situations worse than that of Cuba.

As for the European Union, it must end its Common Position on Cuba, which is discriminatory and not credible for the same reasons, and normalize relations with Havana. It remains now to assess the moral authority of Brussels on this issue.

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