Human rights in Cuba shouldn’t be ignored

by By Mayra

The Twin Cities Cuba Network and Students for Cuba, along with other University organizations, sponsored a presentation last Thursday by a representative from the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C.
The presentation focused on the latest legislation that attempts to tighten the U.S. embargo against Cuba. The Helms-Burton Law was passed by the Congress and signed by President Clinton last year after the downing of two planes carrying American citizens. Cuban fighters blew these planes out of the sky, and four Cuban-Americans lost their lives in what was, most likely, an attempt to distribute Anti-Castro leaflets over Havana.
While it is disputed as to whether these planes had ventured into Cuban airspace, there is no internationally recognized law that allows the military of any nation to open fire on unarmed civilian aircraft. It was in this context that Helms-Burton was passed.
I certainly agree with the Cuba Network and Students for Cuba that the law is a terrible piece of legislation. It has been almost unanimously denounced by the international community. But earlier this year, after considerable pressure from Canada, Mexico and the European Union, Clinton suspended all the provisions of this law. Helms-Burton has been rendered without effect.
The broader issue, of course, is the economic embargo against Cuba. I do concur with the opinions expressed against the embargo.
Like so many developing nations, the Cuban economy is in disarray. The economy of Cuba has suffered tremendously after the fall of the Soviet Union. Subsequently, Cuba lost a great deal in terms of economic markets, trading partners, subsidies and material goods. The economy has been crippled primarily because this lifeline has been almost completely severed.
The U.S. embargo currently does allow for several million dollars to flow into Cuba from the United States in the form of humanitarian aid. It is further estimated that Cuban-Americans provide, each year, around $300 million in cash and supplies to family and friends on the island. The European Union also makes provisions for some $20 million in aid to the country. However, the economic situation in Cuba remains desperate.
One controversial issue is that, were the embargo simply lifted, American businesses would be free to go in and set up house in Cuba and exploit the Cuban labor force — as it has done with much of Latin America. Businesses would then pay the Cuban government in U.S. dollars, while in turn the government would pay the Cuban worker in pesos, which are deflated in value. In this way, the Cuban government could potentially use Cuban labor to gain the economic means of solidifying power without democratic reform.
I agree that the embargo, especially the blockade of food and medicine, should be lifted. I also argue that, consistent with the position of several human rights organizations on the island, some parts of the embargo be negotiated to ensure the best possible wages for workers (in dollars) and the least amount of exploitation by both American business and the Cuban government.
This leads me to my next point. I have to say I am quite constantly amazed that the Cuba Network and Students for Cuba so consistently refuse to address the issue of human rights abuses in Cuba.
I find the violations of rights on the island rather hard to ignore. In July 1994, some 70 Cubans stole a tugboat in a desperate attempt to flee the country. The Cuban Coast Guard forcibly prevented the departure of the “13 de Marzo” tugboat by spraying the ship with high pressure water hoses and ramming the boat repeatedly until it split in half. In total 38 Cubans were murdered, 22 of them children. During a press conference, one of the survivors, Sergio Perodin Perez, broke down and wept for several minutes over the drowning of his wife and eldest son. When asked about the incident, Cuban officials from the Ministry of the Interior said that the dead were “counter-revolutionary dogs.” This incident has been documented at the United Nations, and the U.S. Congress, as well as by Amnesty International and Americas Watch.
The same summer, thousands of Cubans rioted in the streets of Havana chanting “Libertad! Libertad!.” According to Human Rights Watch/Americas, “As many as a thousand people were arrested after the Aug. 5 rioting in Havana and charged with ‘rebellion’.” The same report states that “human rights and political dissidents continue to be subjected to random beatings, arrest, detention or imprisonment and other forms of harassment.”
One such human rights activist is Sebastian Arcos Bergnes, brother to Gustavo Arcos Bergnes — a well-known dissident in Cuba who fought alongside Castro in the revolution against Batista, but later spoke out against the totalitarian nature of the regime. Gustavo has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, and both he and his brother have been repeatedly arrested on charges such as “disrespect,” “contempt” and “enemy propaganda.” Sebastian recently testified before the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
Bergnes spoke about being denied adequate medical attention during his detention at the Prison of Ariza in the Province of Cienfuegos. After being freed in 1994, he sought medical care in the United States and doctors found a malignant rectal tumor 8 cm in diameter. The tumor would have been easily detectable through a standard medical exam for a man Sebastian’s age. In his statement he explained, “These conclusions put the Cuban government in a difficult juncture. … Or the Cuban government recognizes itself guilty of criminal negligence in my case, or it recognizes itself guilty of an attempted premeditated homicide against my person.”
The Cuba debate sparks intense controversy and the heated emotions. While I respect the right of the representatives from the Cuban government to freely express their perspective, I think that it is an injustice before the people of Cuba that these crimes go silent. The government must be held accountable. The claims made by the Cuban government that abuses of Cuban’s rights are caused by the United States are contradicted; according to Amnesty International, they “cannot exculpate, or excuse in any way, human rights violations perpetrated by the Cuban government.”
As much as I advocate and admire socialist goals, I understand that if we do not take this suffering seriously, it is we who condemn the socialist model to ideological bankruptcy and political corruption. The self-determination and sovereignty of Cuba, as a nation, is hollow if the Cuban people cannot vote for their president, express dissent, advocate change or organize peacefully. Lift the embargo, but do not forget the dissidents.
I must insist that these “pro-Cuba” organizations deal more sincerely with human rights violations in Cuba. Jose Mart¡, who fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain and is widely held as the most influential thinker and writer in the country’s history, once wrote, “to witness a crime in silence is to commit it.”
Mayra Gomez is a graduate student studying sociology.