By celebrating a state visit just prior to the votes on proposed U.N. resolutions condemning their governments' human rights records, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Cuban President Fidel Castro are signaling a worrisome mutual agenda on rights issues, Human Rights Watch said today.

President Jiang arrives in Havana for a state visit on April 12. The following week, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights is due to consider resolutions condemning human rights abuses in both China and Cuba. Despite their wretched rights records, both countries are voting members of the fifty?three nation Commission, the body charged with monitoring compliance of international human rights norms on behalf of the larger international community.

Human Rights Watch charged both governments with an array of rights abuses, including a widespread pattern of arbitrary detentions and severe restrictions on freedom of expression.

"The leaders of both countries have something in common that goes beyond trade and economic interests," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "Their human rights policies and governing practices are bankrupt in the eyes of the rest of the world."

"In Cuba, President Jiang won't have to worry about Falun Gong protesters, democracy advocates or Catholic church clerics upset about state interference in religious affairs," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. "Instead, he'll find a sympathetic ear in Fidel Castro: someone with a distressingly similar agenda on human rights."

China's record on freedom of religion is of particular concern to Human Rights Watch, in light of the past year's intensified crackdown on religious activities outside the auspices of the official, state sanctioned churches. In January, the government?sponsored Catholic Church ordained five new bishops without consulting Rome. This was a clear example of deliberate state interference in religious matters. A decree issued by the State Administration of Religious Affairs last fall put into place strict new controls over religious activities of foreigners, including Catholics.

China's underground Catholic church, which pledges its loyalty to Rome, has been under growing pressure to submit to party control. For resisting, in some areas its members often paid a price at the hands of local authorities: harassment, intimidation, interrogation, detention, extortion and fines, and demolition of church buildings.

And in September an eighty-one year old bishop, Zeng Jingmu, was taken into custody by sixty police officers, together with two priests, and later was released. As of the end of the year, several Catholic bishops remained in detention, many of them held for long periods of time.
Bishop Su Zhimin disappeared in 1997; his current whereabouts and condition are unknown.

Human Rights Watch noted that Cuba also has a poor record on freedom of religion. Although the government currently permits many more opportunities for religious expression than it did in the past, it still maintains tight control on religious institutions and on individual believers. The Catholic church, which claims over half of Cuba's population as adherents, lacks almost all access to the media, endures strict limits on the numbers of its clergy, and is barred from operating schools.

During his tour of the Latin America, President Jiang plans to visit several other countries on the U.N. Human Rights Commission, including Uruguay, Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. While the latter countries may be more critical of China's human rights practices, China can count on Cuba's vote to keep any debate of the topic off the Commission's schedule. With Cuba also facing possible censure by the Commission, there is clearly a mutually convenient agenda.

"It is time for both Cuba and China to take concrete steps to move into the 21st century," said Jendrzejczyk. "Although Jiang and Castro may hug each other at the Havana airport, their embrace can't ultimately prevent social and political change in both societies."