Human Rights Developments
The Cuban government continued to use intimidatory tactics and its unduly restrictive criminal laws to silence independent voices and emerging organizations in 1996. State security agents limited the activities of dissidents, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and Cuba=s few independent journalists through intimidation, short-term detention, and in the most serious cases, prison terms or forced exile. Reinforcing the urgent need for legal reform, authorities invoked penal code provisions such as Aenemy propaganda,@ Acontempt of authority,@ and Adangerousness@ that criminalized internationally protected rights to free expression and association.
Vice-President and General of the Army Raúl Castro Ruz expressed the government=s intolerance of minimal openings in Cuban civil society in a March 23 speech to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. General Castro dismissed what he called incipient Aglasnost,@ particularly the emerging independent press, as a threat requiring aggressive governmental control.
The Cuban government launched a crackdown against the Cuban Council (Concilio Cubano), a coalition of 135 NGOs, on February 15, shortly before the group=s first national assembly to discuss nonviolent dissent. State security agents targeted Concilio members with harassment, short-term detention, and in several cases, criminal prosecution. The pressures against Concilio prevented the national meeting and continued with less intensity at this writing. As part of the crackdown, Cuban authorities detained dozens of activists, including Dr. René Góme Manzano, who previously had been disbarred, was later released after trial. On February 23, judicial authorities convicted Concilio=s national leader, attorney Leonel Morejón Almagro, of Aresisting authority@ and Acontempt of authority,@ charges frequently used to criminalize expression perceived to threaten the state, and sentenced him to fifteen months in prison. On February 22, a Cuban tribunal sentenced another Concilio leader, Lázaro González Valdés, to fourteen months on the same charges.
The Cuban government steadily harassed Cuba=s emerging, independent journalists, several of whom were Concilio members. In the most severe cases, the authorities forced journalists to choose between exile or prosecution under criminal laws penalizing free expression or association. In May, after repeated detentions and threats of prosecution for Acriminal association,@ the government forced Rafael Solano, the founder of Habana Press, into exile in Spain. Roxana Valdivia Castilla, who founded the Patria press agency in Ciego de Avila, received similar threats. In June, she went into exile in the U.S. At this writing, the government had not permitted exiled journalist Yndamiro Restano Díaz to return to Cuba, despite assuring him that he would be able to leave and return freely to the country after his 1995 release from prison. Cuban authorities sometimes harassed and detained exiled journalists= family members who remained in Cuba.
The Cuban government also exiled activists, such as Concilio member Eugenio Rodríguez Chaple, the president of the Democratic Block José Martí (Bloque Democrático José Martí). Cuban authorities detained him in February and threatened him with up to fifteen years in prison for Aillegal association@ and Aenemy propaganda.@ He left Cuba for Spain on July 4. In June, a Cuban tribunal sentenced Radames García de la Vega and Néstor Rodríguez Lobeina, of the Cuban Movement of Youth for Democracy (Movimiento Cubano de Jóvenes por la Democracia), to internal exile, ordering them from Havana to their hometowns in eastern Cuba.
Conditions for political prisoners and the general prison population remained poor in Cuba. In violation of the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, Cuban inmates languished in overcrowded cells with minimal provisions of food and medical assistance, frequently reporting significant weight loss and aggravated health problems. At several facilities, prison authorities reportedly beat prisoners, including minors, and subjected political prisoners and others who protested prison conditions to harsh measures, such as suspension of visits, transfers to remote areas far from family members, and prolonged confinement in isolation cells, in violation of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which is binding on Cuba. Meanwhile, the government continued to bar access to prisons to domestic and international human rights monitors. Cuban authorities last permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to prisons in 1989.
The Cuban penal code continued to criminalize Aillegal exit,@ thereby violating Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which protects the right to leave one=s own country. In June, Cuban authorities charged Elier Orosa Remírez with this Acrime,@ after the U.S. returned him from Guantánamo Bay. Orosa=s treatment violated the May 1995 immigration agreement between the U.S. and Cuban governments, which provided that Cuba would not harass returnees.
The Cuban government refused legalization of independent organizations in 1996, including human rights groups, labor unions, and other NGOs, thereby leaving these groups= members at risk of prosecution for taking part in meetings. Years after Elizardo Sánchez Santacruz filed for the legalization of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos y Reconciliación Nacional, CCDHRN), the Cuban government continued to withhold legal recognition. Similarly, members of the Christian Liberation Movement (Movimiento Cristiano Liberación) were detained and intimidated after filing for government registration in March 1995, which they never received.
Cuba=s Foreign Investment Law required all investors to hire employees through the government-controlled employment agency, which apparently selected workers based on political viewpoints. This discriminatory action and the government=s refusal to allow independent trade unions violated Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees nondiscriminatory access to jobs and the right to form and join trade unions.
The Right to Monitor
The Cuban government impeded the work of domestic and international human rights groups in 1996. The Concilio crackdown targeted all of Cuba=s most prominent human rights organizations. The government did not allow human rights activists to participate in international conferences outside Cuba.
Once again, the Cuban authorities refused to allow the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Cuba, Amb. Carl-Johan Groth, who was appointed in March 1992, to enter the country and review human rights conditions. The government did not permit the ICRC to visit prisons, nor did it allow international human rights NGOs, including Human Rights Watch/Americas, to conduct on-site visits. At mid-year, an unnamed Cuban government source cited in the U.S. media attempted to discredit our work by falsely alleging that we funneled U.S. government money to Cuban NGOs.
On June 19, following four days of meetings with Cuban journalists, Suzanne Bilello of the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists was detained by Cuban authorities, interrogated for several hours, and then expelled from the country the following morning. On July 12, Cuban immigration officials expelled Jacques Perrot, of the France-based Reporters without Borders (Reporters sans frontières), hours after his arrival in Havana. Harassment of local journalists intensified following these incidents.
In August, the Cuban government refused to renew the visa of Robin Diane Meyers, the United States Interests Section human rights officer, complaining among other things that she had distributed Aanti-government literature,@ including writings about José Martí and George Orwell=s Animal Farm.
The Role of the International Community
While barred from entering Cuba, Special Rapporteur Groth actively tracked human rights developments. The fifty-second session of the Human Rights Commission again extended the special rapporteur=s mandate and condemned Cuban human rights practices. The Cuban government unsuccessfully attempted to restrict the mandate of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, which had censured Cuba in several cases.
The European Union (E.U.) publicly supported human rights in Cuba and successfully pressed for the release of several political prisoners, who were then exiled. The E.U. could claim few other positive results from its efforts, though. Europeans became complicit in human rights abuse by promoting investment in government-dominated projects that deny basic labor rights. Moreover, while urging further investment in Cuba, the E.U. did not exercise its leverage to insist on concrete improvements in human rights, such as penal code reforms or access for the U.N. special rapporteur.
To its credit, following the crackdown on Concilio Cuban, the E.U. froze discussions on a cooperation agreement with Cuba, which was due to include a human rights conditionality clause.
Organization of American States
In October, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the Cuban government=s July 1994 sinking of the 13 de marzo tugboat, whose seventy-two occupants were fleeing Cuba. Forty-one people died in the attack, which the commission assailed as a violation of the rights to life and transit.
On February 24, the Cuban Air Force shot down two civilian aircraft, killing four members of Brothers to the Rescue (Hermanos al Rescate), a Miami-based Cuban exile group. The incident sparked a prompt but indiscriminate U.S. government response. On March 12, President Clinton signed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (also known as the Helms-Burton law) into law, solidifying the thirty-year policy of isolation that had failed to bring human rights improvements to Cuba. The Helms-Burton law included provisions that restricted the rights to free expression and association and the freedom to travel between the U.S. and Cuba, thus violating Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty ratified by the U.S. The Clinton administration=s additional bars on communication, such as the suspension of direct flights between the U.S. and Cuba, also limited opportunities for the free flow of information.
The U.S. government continued to track closely human rights developments in Cuba in 1996. The State Department=s Cuba section in Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995 was thorough and reliable.