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Crackdown Against Dissidents in Cuba

Testimony of José Miguel Vivanco
Executive Director Americas Division, Human Rights Watch
House Committee on International Relations
Washington, April 16 2003
Vice Chairman Smith, Members of the Committee:

Key Sections

  • Anatomy of a Crackdown

  • The Crackdown in Context

  • U.S. Policy

  • Cuba and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights

  • Related Material

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    HRW Press Release April 7, 2003

    Cuba: Unfair Trials of Nonviolent Dissidents
    HRW Press Release April 3, 2003

    Cuba: Release Dissidents Now
    HRW Press Release, March 21, 2003

    "The denial of basic civil and political rights is inscribed in Cuban law. The country's domestic legislation tightly restricts the rights to free speech, association, assembly and the press; its courts lack independence and impartiality; and its criminal procedures violate defendants' rights to due process of law."

    José Miguel Vivanco
    Executive Director
    Americas Division
    Human Rights Watch

    I am honored to appear before you today. Thank you for your invitation to address the committee regarding the crackdown against dissidents in Cuba.

    I know the Committee is most interested in an exchange of views, so my remarks will be brief. I would like to submit, for the record, my written testimony.

    Human Rights Watch has monitored human rights conditions in Cuba for more than fifteen years. Although severe restrictions on basic civil and political rights have been a constant in Cuba during this period, the current crackdown, both in its scale and in its intensity, far surpasses the violations we have documented in the past.

    Over the past month, the Cuban government has carried out a full-scale offensive against nonviolent dissidents, independent journalists, human rights advocates, independent librarians and others brave enough to challenge the government's monopoly on truth. By its sweeping nature, the crackdown seems intended not only to repress dissident voices, but to deny the very possibility of an independent civil society.

    But while the current wave of repression is extraordinary for its scope and intensity, there is nothing unusual, by Cuban standards, about the means by which it has been imposed. The denial of basic civil and political rights is inscribed in Cuban law. The country's domestic legislation tightly restricts the rights to free speech, association, assembly and the press; its courts lack independence and impartiality; and its criminal procedures violate defendants' rights to due process of law.

    The machinery of repression has been well maintained; what has varied is the government's interest in employing it.

    Anatomy of a Crackdown

    The current crackdown began on March 18, as the world's attention was focused on the impending war in Iraq. Within the space of a few days, state security agents arrested dozens of people, searching their homes, and, in many case, confiscating fax machines, computers, books, typewriters and personal papers. State-run television accused the detainees of "provocations" and "subversive activities."

    Prosecutions began in early April. In four days of trials, from April 3-7, 75 defendants were tried and convicted; none were acquitted. Trials were held in thirteen courtrooms across the country, from Havana to Pinar del Rio, and from Camaguay to Guantanamo. The courts employed a so-called facilitated procedure, which, under articles 479 and 480 of Cuba's code of criminal procedure, is supposed to be applied only in "exceptional circumstances."

    In due process terms, the trials were a sham. Defendants in many cases did not see their lawyers before trial, and lawyers had only the most limited time to prepare a defense. Trials were closed to outside observers, such as the U.S. and European diplomats and international journalists who tried to attend; only close family members were allowed inside.

    The defendants included some of Cuba's most prominent and well-respected journalists, dissidents, and independent thinkers. Among them were:

    • RAUL RIVERO -- Poet, writer, and journalist, Rivero, age 57, is the founder and editor of CubaPress, an independent news service. Serving as Prensa Latina's Moscow correspondent from 1973 to 1976, Rivero later headed the science and culture service of the state news agency. He abandoned official journalism in 1991, dismissing it as a "fiction about a country that does not exist."

    • MARTA BEATRIZ ROQUE CABELLO - An economist, and the director of the Cuban Institute of Independent Economists, Roque, age 56, had previously served nearly three years in prison. Along with three other dissidents, she was prosecuted after publishing an analytic paper titled "The Homeland Belongs to All," which discussed Cuba's human rights situation and called for reforms. She is a recipient of the 2002 Heinz R. Pagels Human Rights of Scientists Award of the New York Academy of Sciences.

    • DR. OSCAR ELIAS BISCET GONZALEZ -- The president of the Lawton Human Rights Foundation, an independent organization, Biscet, age 42, received a three-year prison sentence in February 2000 for protests that included turning the Cuban flag upside-down and carrying anti-abortion placards. Incarcerated from November 1999 until late October 2002, he was rearrested little more than a month after his release.

    • HECTOR PALACIOS RUIZ - A dissident since the late 1980s, Palacios, age 62, founded the Democratic Solidarity Party in 1993. Palacios is one of the leaders of the Varela Project, a high-profile effort seeking democratic reform.

    The central charge against the defendants was that they worked with U.S. diplomats to undermine the Cuban government and damage the country's national interests. Defendants were prosecuted under the Law for the Protection of Cuban National Independence and the Economy (Ley de Protección de la Independencia Nacional y la Economía de Cuba, Ley 88), which took effect in March 1999, and the Law Reaffirming Cuban Dignity and Sovereignty (Ley de Reafirmación de la Dignidad y Soberanía Cubanas), which took effect in December 1996. The Cuban government justifies both provisions as a response to the Helms-Burton law, the U.S. legislation that hardened the trade embargo against Cuba.

    Cuban government spokesmen condemned the defendants as "mercenaries" in the pay of the United States. But rather than proving conspiratorial actions, the government penalized the defendants for holding dissident views and disseminating unwelcome information.

    In the end, the 75 defendants received sentences ranging from 6 to 28 years of imprisonment, with an average sentence of more than 19 years. The cumulative total of the sentences was a mind-boggling 1,454 years. Notably, the Cuban courts have not imposed such draconian sentences on such large numbers of people in more than two decades.

    Last Friday, in a further display of contempt for the rule of law, the Cuban government executed three men who had tried to hijack a passenger ferry. The three were put to death a mere nine days after their arrests, sufficient time for the government to hold summary trials and for the Council of State, Cuba's highest executive body, to rubber-stamp the verdicts.

    The Crackdown in Context

    The broad range of Cubans arrested and tried - from journalists to economists to librarians to human rights activists - attests to the flowering of civil society in Cuba. In general, despite occasional waves of repression, the clear trend over the past decade in Cuba has been toward a relative increase in tolerance for dissident activities and a reduction in the number of political prisoners.

    Over the past year, in particular, Cuba's dissident community has demonstrated growing ambition, while gaining increased international prominence. The organizers of the Varela Project, led by dissident Oswaldo Payá Sardinas, presented an important symbolic challenge to the government's intransigence in the area of political rights. On May 10, the organizers delivered a petition to the National Assembly -- Cuba's unicameral legislature -- containing more than eleven thousand signatures. Relying on constitutional protections for the right to petition, the Varela Project asked the government to hold a referendum on a broad array of civil and political rights, including competitive elections, freedom of the press, and an amnesty for political prisoners.

    In December 2002, the European Union awarded Payá its prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. And a few months later Payá was allowed to leave the country on a world tour in which he met the Pope, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and several heads of state.

    Within Cuba, the Varela Project gained unprecedented attention with the visit of former President Jimmy Carter. During a public address on May 14 at the University of Havana, which was broadcast live on Cuban television, Carter made direct reference to the Varela Project, urging the Cuban authorities to institute democratic reforms.

    U.S. Policy

    Despite visits to Cuba by former President Carter and other prominent American political figures, the current crackdown takes place in a context of worsening U.S.-Cuba relations.

    A number of developments have contributed to this trend:

    • In June 2001, five Cuban nationals were convicted of spying after a trial held in Miami, and in December 2001 they were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. The case has become a cause celebre in Cuba, where the men are seen as victims of a political witchhunt.

    • In May 2002, just prior to Carter's visit to the island, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control John R. Bolton accused Cuba of developing a limited capacity for germ warfare research. Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich reprised these claims in October.

    • In recent months, tensions between the U.S. Interests Section and the Cuban government have increased, with Cuban officials directly criticizing the head of the Interests Section for his vocal support of dissidents.

    • A string of hijackings has sharpened Cuban anger over U.S. immigration rules.

    In light of the current crackdown, U.S. policymakers might be tempted to freeze relations with Cuba and, in particular, to end efforts toward lifting restrictions on trade with and travel to the island. But to do so would be a mistake.

    It is time for members of Congress to come to grips with the failure of U.S. policy toward Cuba. The current crackdown, rather than eliciting an even more hardline response, should make the defects of our current approach all the more obvious. Lacking any engagement with Cuba, the United States is almost powerless to influence the current situation.

    In the view of Human Rights Watch, there are serious flaws in the more than forty-year-old policy of isolation and embargo. First, it is an all-or-nothing approach aimed at overthrowing the Castro government, which does not allow for any relaxation in response to measurable improvement in Cuban human rights practices. It therefore does nothing to encourage such improvements, instead providing Castro with a convenient justification for their repressive policies.

    Second, the embargo is indiscriminate, hurting the Cuban population as a whole. By eliciting a nationalistic response from Cubans, it helps the government shift blame for the country's problems.

    Third, the embargo alienates Washington's potential allies in the effort to bring about change in Cuba. For the past eleven years, it has been condemned in the General Assembly of the United Nations by an overwhelming margin. Resentment of the embargo dissuades other governments from being more vocal about Cuba's poor human rights conditions. We are seeing this phenomenon right now, at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights: many countries, despite the massive display of repression in Cuba, are hesitant to support a resolution on Cuba.

    Finally, the embargo's travel ban, which only contains narrow exceptions for journalists, people with relatives in Cuba, and certain other groups, violates the rights of U.S. citizens by limiting their ability to share information and ideas with Cubans. As the visit of former President Jimmy Carter exemplified, U.S. visitors may be the emissaries of democratic values and ideas, enriching Cuba's relatively closed society.

    If the goal is to improve human rights conditions in Cuba, then the embargo should be ended gradually, and the US should opt for a concerted effort with its allies - Latin America, Canada, and the EU-to implement a middle ground policy between ineffective isolation and unprincipled engagement.

    Cuba and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights

    Finally, I would like to draw your attention to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which is currently meeting in Geneva. Tomorrow, the Commission will vote on a resolution on human rights in Cuba. Human Rights Watch supports a strong resolution condemning Cuba for its poor human rights record.

    But even aside from the resolution is the question of Cuba's continued membership on the commission. Cuba's two-year term as a member of the commission expires this year, and it is seeking another term on the U.N. body. At the end of April, member states will choose the commission's new and returning members. Because Latin American countries are proposing a slate of candidates, including Cuba, that is the same size as the number of commission seats allotted the region, Cuba is almost certain to be returned to the U.N. body.

    Human Rights Watch believes that, in the wake of a crackdown of the scope and severity now seen in Cuba, the country's reelection to the United Nations' most high-profile human rights body would be a bitter defeat for the human rights ideal.