Simon Wollers opinion piece on recent events in Cuba

Campaign News | Friday, 2 May 2003

Capital Punishment and the Humanitarianism that Binds Cuba

Simon Wollers

Capital Punishment and the Humanitarianism that Binds Cuba

The recent execution of three hijackers here in Cuba significantly distressed a nation that had become used to an unofficial moratorium on capital punishment. It has also caused a major split among many friends of Cuba abroad.

Opinions range from accusing the island of malicious disregard for the UN Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva, to suggesting a remarkable na?veté in not anticipating the storm of condemnation from every quarter. We have had the arrogance and abstract notions of intellectuals who have washed their hands of Cuba before even attempting to soil them in trying to fathom the island’s actions and the tragedies involved in its defense. Others have embarked on polemical Internet discussions in splutters of misspent energy while Iraq and Palestine burn. And the gutter press of Miami and elsewhere, taking advantage of the fact that the execution followed on the heels of the arrest and trial of some 75 agents paid by the USA to destabilize the government, has bayed that Havana is executing “dissidents”.

Further, the unfortunate misinterpretation of Cuba’s judicial system that uses terminology such as “kangaroo courts” and “Stalinist show-trials”, clouds important aspects that are essential to an understanding of recent events.

Cuba is a state, not a revolutionary group in the mountains. It has laws, a working legal system with judges, attorneys, civil and criminal courts, a Supreme Court and a Council of State. Those laws, as with any functioning national system, stipulate certain penalties for specific crimes. The notion of whether or not the law should have been applied in this case because no one was killed by the hijackers is immaterial – the penalty for terrorism in Cuba is death. The law – be we for or against capital punishment – was applied.

Of course, the death penalty has all kinds of negative implications, especially for a state whose matrix is humanitarianism. But the very fact that the Cuban authorities acted to avoid any deaths of hostages in the dangerous hijacking of an inner city passenger ferry out onto the high seas – not to mention the previous hijackings of two passenger aircraft - is an indication of that very humanitarianism which continues to be a powerful component of Cuban society.

The three who were executed (there were 11 hijackers in all) had violent criminal records and demonstrated a willingness to kill during the hijacking of the ferry boat. They held knives to the throats of their hostages, refused offers of food for the children on board, tied up a pregnant woman, forced a craft not built for the high seas out into the dangerous Straits, and repeatedly threatened to throw people overboard if their demands were not met. There are very few countries that would have acted with the restraint of Cuba. Most would have weighed the situation, made a determination as to the permissible number of hostages killed in a rescue attempt, and waded in. The Russian theater stand-off comes to mind as well as Waco in the United States.

This brings us back to the island’s distress. The humanitarianism that binds and builds this society ensured that the executions would elicit profound shock. We were all astounded that the penalty had been carried out. The terrorists that bombed and killed in a 1997 attack against Havana hotels have still not been placed before a firing squad.

This was, therefore, a clear indication of just how serious the possibility of a migration crisis leading to armed conflict with the United States was seen by Cuban authorities. Washington has made it very clear that any mass migration of Cubans across the Florida Straits would be seen as a threat to US national security. US Attorney General John Ashcroft recently stated that "surges in such illegal migration by sea injure national security". Well, promoting such surges also injures Cuba’s national security.

If yet another vessel seizure was successful and the perpetrators - as with previous hijackers - welcomed as heroes in Florida, a general migration emergency would most likely have been set in motion - almost certainly leading to a clash at sea with the US Coast Guard trying to prevent landings, and the Cuban Coast Guard attempting to ensure the safety of those on the boats.

In an emotional and unsolicited statement to the Havana press corps on the subject, Cuban Foreign Minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, said that he was against the death penalty, and that it is not a philosophy of the Revolution. He added that the decision to execute the three hijackers was not taken with any relish and that Cuba sought one day to remove capital punishment from its books. The Council of State – the highest organ of judicial appeal after the Supreme Court when the death penalty is the sentence - reportedly wrangled over the issue for over two hours. The weighty decision may have been made quickly – essential, given the crisis brewing - but it certainly was not taken lightly. The Cuban courts know that the death penalty is far more of a deterrent here than long prison terms and took drastic action to preserve national security.

The appalling backing given by the USA for Cuban kidnappers, hijackers and terrorists on both sides of the Straits – and the Cuban Adjustment Act that provides shelter to any Cuban reaching the US mainland – without any doubt set the scene along with the inexcusable behavior of the head of the US Interests Sections in Havana, James Cason, who has been openly promoting discord between Havana and Washington since he arrived on the scene last September. What other nation would tolerate such conduct of a foreign diplomat?

Furthermore, there is now little doubt in asserting that an emigration predicament was deliberately created by the Bush administration in very severely limiting the number of visas that US/Cuba immigration accords stipulate – 20,000 a year. So far this year fewer than 600 visas have been granted, in clear violation of these accords.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of the whole sordid affair is the fact that Cuba – however unwittingly – is seen to have placed itself on a par with the United States in applying the death penalty.

The issue has incensed Mexico which, nonetheless, has the death penalty on its books for exceptional cases (would this have been one of those cases if the scenario was the same over there, one wonders?). Europe, too, has heavy criticism for the decision to execute the three hijackers. However, the European nations that censure Cuba are not struggling for survival against the most powerful and, as we now see, uncontrollable military power on the planet. They may not have capital punishment on their books any longer, but many apply it unofficially – one does not have to go very far back in time to recall how France treated those it perceived as terrorists in New Caledonia, Spain in the Basque country and Britain in Northern Ireland. These and other nations have taken drastic measures to defend themselves against terrorism. Why is such a double standard applied to Cuba?

I live and work on this island and believe in the social experiment – for all its warts – that is being conducted here. I also now know what it is like to live under the constant threat of invasion and understand the privations associated with economic blockade. I sincerely believe – in spite of this one incident - that Cuba is run by a government concerned, above all, with issues of humanitarianism. I challenge anyone to provide the names of any Cuban government official who has ties to corporations that make arms, or any that are on the boards of multi-nationals that trade local environment and health for profit, or any that, as with the US President, have said they strongly support capital punishment as a matter of policy.

I am against the death penalty under any circumstances, but I would never deny Cuba the right to defend its sovereignty and independence. Yes, condemn this recent application of the penalty in Cuba if you will, but try to understand the consequences of four decades of hostilities against the island and don’t turn your backs on the real humanitarianism we have here.

Simon Wollers is an English journalist who has worked for the past five years for Radio Havana Cuba.

Further information from CSC at Tel. 020 7263 6452

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