Human Rights Developments
None of these steps, however, indicated any fundamental change in the Cuban human rights situation. In the absence of necessary structural reforms, the Cuban government continued to violate systematically the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, privacy, and due process of law. Although the government promised not to prosecute citizens who were repatriated by the United States after exercising their internationally protected right to leave the country, the law against "illegal exit" was not repealed.
Numerous Cubans remained imprisoned for peacefully expressing their disagreement with government policy, including one man jailed for writing a letter to the secretary-general of the United Nations that criticized Cuban government policies. Although the government prosecuted fewer people, state security police continued to arrest, detain, harass, and intimidate human rights monitors, labor organizers, and pro-democracy activists, to refuse them travel visas, and otherwise to restrict their movements. These individuals, whom the authorities assailed as "counterrevolutionaries," were kept under strict surveillance and discriminated against in employment. The civic and political organizations to which they belonged were denied official recognition. Political prosecutions were held in courts_including military tribunals_that flouted basic due process norms.
The Cuban penal code provided a firm legal foundation for the repression of political dissidence. Laws defining such crimes as "enemy propaganda," "clandestine printing," and "contempt of authority" curbed speech. Laws prohibiting "rebellion" and "illicit association," among other crimes_which, if properly defined and carefully applied, might be consistent with international standards_continued to pose a threat to Cubans expressing dissident views. State security forces continued to employ the "dangerousness" provision against perceived opponents of the state. Vaguely worded and broad, with an almost limitless potential for discriminatory application, the dangerousness provision authorized up to four years of preventive detention of those who conducted themselves in a manner that contradicted "socialist morality," even without having committed a crime. Under this provision, dozens of human rights monitors and dissidents received an "official warning," the first step toward detention.
Subordinate to the executive, courts in Cuba lacked the necessary procedural guarantees to protect defendants from unfair prosecutions. Public and press access to trials was often narrowly limited or denied, defense witnesses were often barred, and defendants were almost always convicted. Before trial, or often simply as a form of harassment, government officials commonly detained human rights activists and perceived opponents of the state_sometimes for short periods, sometimes for extremely long periods. Though authorities did not physically torture detainees, they commonly held them in incommunicado detention in extremely severe conditions.
Prison inmates reported that minimal infractions or nonviolent protests such as hunger strikes spawned retaliation in the form of beatings, confinement in harsh isolation cells, violent and arbitrary searches, confiscation of belongings, denial of medical attention, suspension of visits, and transfer to prisons far from their relatives. Besides serious shortages of food and other supplies, Cuban prisons were plagued with overcrowding, poor hygiene and vermin. Prisoners typically lost weight while in confinement due to the insufficient diet provided them.
The evangelical Christian movement was the target of government harassment, including prosecutions. In December 1994, Miguel Angel León García, a lay pastor of the Baptist Church in San Fernando de Camarones, Camagüey Province, and Jorge Luis Brito Rodríguez, a member of that church, were sentenced to six years' imprisonment for the crime of enemy propaganda. Pastor Orson Vila Santoyo, a Pentacostal minister in Camagüey who refused to refrain from holding religious services in his home, was arrested in May 1995. In blatant disregard for due process, he was tried for "illicit association" on the day of his arrest, receiving a sentence that was reduced on appeal to eighteen months. During the same month, the Cuban authorities closed scores of other casas culto, evangelical meeting places operating out of homes.
During the summer, independent journalists suffered harassment as they became increasingly active and organized. In July, the authorities detained and threatened several journalists and confiscated the equipment of another, in an official effort to prevent them from reporting on "sensitive subjects." One such subject was the anniversary of the tragedy of the hijacked tugboat Trece de Marzo, which was rammed by a Cuban government boat on July 13, 1994, causing the deaths of about forty civilians fleeing Cuba. As the anniversary of the incident drew near, Cubans in Miami organized a flotilla to go into or near Cuban territorial waters to honor the victims, hoping that Cubans on the island would commemorate the occasion with them. Human rights monitors reported that a notable police and military presence began building up all over the country after July 1. In the week prior to July 13, and particularly on the 13th itself, the Cuban authorities detained and harassed journalists, dissidents and human rights activists: in all, about three dozen people were detained, while others were placed under house arrest.
Independent journalists also reported serious government harassment in September, with the establishment of the Bureau of Independent Journalists of Cuba (Buró de Periodistas Independientes de Cuba, BPIC), and continuing through November. During this period, the authorities detained or threatened several journalists, including Olance Nogueras Roce. Nogueras, who had just written an article on the Juragua nuclear power plant under construction in Cuba, was arrested on October 20, held for a few days in a maximum security prison, released on October 25, and then detained again and threatened with prosecution. In addition, the authorities barred Roxana Valdivia, the Ciego de Avila representative of the BPIC, from traveling outside her province; and gave Hector Perraza, the Pinar del Rio correspondent of the Havana Press, an official warning that he would be jailed for dangerousness unless he gave up independent journalism.
In a positive step, Cuba ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In addition, over the course of the year, authorities released at least two dozen political prisoners prior to the expiration of their sentences. Many of these prisoners were, however, freed on the condition that they abandon the country. Although such releases gave prisoners an alternative to continued illegal detention, they clearly did not evidence the government's greater openness to political dissent. From the government's perspective, freeing dissidents into exile was beneficial for at least two reasons: internationally, it eliminated the embarrassment to the country's image caused by having known political prisoners; internally, it helped nip nascent human rights and opposition movements in the bud by expelling potential leaders. Because the technique of releasing political prisoners into exile increasingly became the norm, the unconditional release in May of Yndamiro Restano and Sebastián Arcos was particularly significant. Up to that moment, they were the two most prominent political prisoners in Cuba; international pressure for their release enabled them to refuse exile. Nonetheless, many other pro-democracy activists and rights monitors continued to languish in prison, including Dr. Omar del Pozo of the National Civic Union, Ileana Curra Luzón of the Nationalist Agenda Movement, and Domiciano Torres Roca of the Democratic Civic Party.
The Right to Monitor
"Acts of repudiation"_a once-common tactic by which a government-assembled mob gathers outside the home of a "counterrevolutionary" to shout slogans and insults, sometimes defacing or otherwise damaging property_were infrequent. One such incident occurred on August 10, however, at the Havana home of Victoria Ruíz Labrit, president of the Cuban Committee of Peaceful and Independent Opposition (Comité Cubano de Oposición Pacífica e Independiente). A crowd of sixty to eighty people armed with pipes and chains reportedly surrounded her home to prevent a planned meeting of dissidents.
Human rights monitors also faced criminal prosecution. In April, Francisco Chaviano González, president of the National Council for Civil Rights in Cuba (Consejo Nacional para los Derechos Civiles en Cuba), was sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment by a military tribunal on charges of "revealing state secrets" and "falsifying documents." Not only did his trial violate basic due process guarantees, but the suspicious circumstances of his arrest in May 1994 cast serious doubt on the evidentiary basis of his conviction. Pedro Arguellez Morán of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights (Comité Cubano Pro Derechos Humanos, CCPDH) suffered political persecution in September, when he was convicted of "enemy propaganda" and received a seven-month sentence. In May, prosecutors charged thirteen members of the Cuban Human Rights Party (Partido Pro Derechos Humanos Cubano) with spreading enemy propaganda, and another member with "illicit association." Although the defendants were released after short stints in detention, and were never tried for these offenses, the sudden crackdown was clearly meant to intimidate both them and other human rights monitors.
In July, Genaro Cortés, the Cienfuegos representative of the CCPDH, was detained for two months and charged with "falsifying documents." Since Cortés had provided material support to Sebastián Arcos of the CCPDH while Arcos was held at Ariza prison, the charges were believed to be a form of retaliation.
There was relatively more openness toward international monitoring in 1995. For the first time since 1988, the Cuban government invited an international delegation to investigate its treatment of political prisoners. The delegation_which included the executive director of Human Rights Watch/Americas_arrived in Cuba in April. Although in a surprise move the authorities hampered the delegation's ability to assess the prisoners' treatment by limiting its access to the administrative areas of prisons, the delegation still enjoyed long, private, and informative conversations with prisoners.
In contrast, the Cuban government firmly rejected the possibility of independent monitoring_either by international or domestic groups_of its treatment of Cubans repatriated under a new migration agreement with the United States. While promising that it would not take reprisals against repatriated Cubans, the Cuban government permitted monitoring only by U.S. Interests Section personnel.
The Role of the International Community
Other countries' resentment of the extraterritorial aspects of the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba_and of U.S. legislative efforts to tighten the embargo_continued to divert their attention from Cuba's human rights record. In November, the U.N. General Assembly voted 117-3 (with thirty-eight abstentions) to condemn the U.S. embargo; among the countries supporting the U.N. resolution were all of the other permanent members of the Security Council save Britain.
The United Nations and the European Union
In addition, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights José Ayala Lasso visited Cuba in November 1994. During his stay, he met with high-level Cuban officials, including President Castro, as well as numerous representatives of unofficial human rights, labor rights and political opposition groups. At the close of his trip, however, he made no public comment on the human rights situation in Cuba, missing an important opportunity to bring public pressure on the Cuban government to institute reforms.
The monitoring efforts of U.N. Special Rapporteur Carl-Johan Groth contrasted markedly both with Ayala Lasso's access to Cuba and with his failure to condemn abuses. Though barred from entering the country, the special rapporteur released a detailed report on the Cuban government's human rights practices. Once again, the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which voted 22-8 (with twenty-three abstentions) in favor of a resolution condemning Cuba's human rights abuses, extended the special rapporteur's mandate for another year. The commission's persistent monitoring of abuses kept needed pressure on Cuba to improve its human rights record.
With Spain's accession to the presidency of the European Union, relations between the European community and Cuba progressed rapidly. Although Cuba remained the only Latin American country with which the E.U. had not signed a cooperation agreement, the E.U. took preliminary steps toward negotiating such an agreement, while individual European countries continued to expand their economic relations with Cuba. Unlike the U.S. government, which continued to insist upon a market economy and political pluralism in Cuba as preconditions to the initiation of economic relations, E.U. officials argued that strengthening relations would facilitate the process of political and economic reform. To their credit, many Europeans appeared serious about using their growing influence in Cuba constructively, urging the government to free political prisoners and move toward compliance with international human rights standards.
Although the decision to end the prolonged arbitrary detention of the Cubans held in Guantánamo camps brought U.S. treatment of them into compliance with its international obligations, the accompanying interdiction policy was flawed. Most notably, the standard originally employed for assessing the claims of asylum seekers_by which Cubans had to show that they were in imminent danger of serious human rights violations_was more restrictive than that prescribed under international law, as U.S. authorities relied on the availability of in-country refugee processing to justify a generalized policy of repatriation.
The screening procedures were, however, revised some weeks after being initially instituted. With these revisions, screening officers were reportedly instructed to employ the appropriate international standard, and the government insisted that it would respect the obligation of non-refoulement: its duty not to repatriate any Cuban with a well-founded fear of persecution. Although the new policy appeared generally to comply with international requirements, certain aspects of it remained problematic. Notable among them were procedural problems associated with shipboard screening, such as the difficulty in ensuring that asylum seekers were guaranteed adequate time to rest and recover from the trauma of their voyage before being interviewed.
At the same time, in Congress, a bill intended to strengthen sanctions against Cuba moved toward passage, reflecting the Republicans' desire for a more confrontational Cuba policy. Known as the Helms-Burton bill for its original sponsors, Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. Dan Burton, the bill represented a congressional attempt to internationalize the American economic embargo on Cuba by, among other things, punishing foreign companies doing business there. Viewed as a U.S. effort to impose its Cuba policy on the rest of the world, it was widely and vociferously condemned by the international community. Largely because of the international outcry against the legislation, the later version of the bill omitted its strongest and most controversial provisions.
Even the weakened version of the Helms-Burton bill raised human rights concerns, however. A provision designed to strengthen the enforcement of restrictions on travel to Cuba would, like the restrictions themselves, violate article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 protects the "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers": as it suggests, one of the key methods by which information is shared is through travel and human contact.
In contrast to Congress's efforts to tighten enforcement of the ban on travel, a more constructive element of U.S. policy toward Cuba was revealed in the administration's October decision to lift the ban on permanent news bureaus in Cuba and partially lift the ban on travel. Although these measures were only a first step toward bringing U.S. policy toward Cuba into compliance with its international obligation to protect the free flow of information, they were an important first step.
To its credit, the U.S. government extended sympathetic treatment to the embattled human rights community in Cuba. For example, a member of U.S. Interests Section staff attempted to attend the trial of human rights activist Francisco Chaviano, and over the course of the year the State Department issued several statements condemning abuses. Using information collected by the U.S. Interests Section, the State Department produced a reliable annual human rights report on Cuba, as it had since 1989.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Americas
Human Rights Watch/Americas continued to press the U.S. government to comply with international standards in its policy toward Cuba. In May, when the administration announced that it would begin repatriating Cubans picked up at sea, we wrote a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno and Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meisner expressing concern over objectionable aspects of the new policy, most of which were later revised. We also wrote a letter urging the administration to lift its ban on permanent news bureaus in Cuba, an action finally taken in October.