Politics as usual on Cuba and human rights

Juanita Ceballos

A lot has changed since the first time I walked the halls of the United Nations building in this Swiss city in February 1988.

A lot, however, has remained the same.

I first traveled to Geneva more than 25 years ago to report on the efforts of then-U.S. Ambassador Armando Valladares to pass a resolution to investigate human rights violations in Cuba.

It was not an easy sell for the Cuban-born ambassador. The very first time the resolution was put to a vote, the only country in Latin America that supported the initiative of the United States was Costa Rica.

Other countries eventually came on board, some more tentatively than others. The resolution passed, and investigators went to Cuba, and wrote a thorough report that laid out the truth: that the government of Cuba did in fact violate the human rights of its citizens.

That’s one of the things that has not changed.

In its yearly report this year, Human Rights Watch had this to say: “Cuba remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent. The government of Raúl Castro continues to enforce political conformity using short-term detentions, beatings, public acts of repudiation, travel restrictions, and forced exile.”

Yet, 12 days ago, after a secret ballot vote at the UN General Assembly in New York, Cuba won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, which means Cuba gets to be a human rights watchdog.

The council has 47 members. Seats on the council are allotted by region and all the members of the General Assembly, 193, can vote. Mexico was the other country in the Latin America and Caribbean group to win a seat. Uruguay, which was a contender, lost to both.

There were a few wire stories about the vote, and then the world moved on. That’s something else that has not changed. When it comes to Cuba, the world is still not listening, as the documentary Nobody Listened reminded us in the late 1980s.

“The truth is nobody cares about Cuba at all,” said Valladares, now 76, and dedicated, mostly, to his art in Miami.

What has changed is the way the Cuban government is handling dissent nowadays.

Contrary to the way things were in the first 30 years or so of the Cuban revolution — can a revolution be so old and still be called a revolution? — control is exerted now in more ingenious and effective ways.

Political prisoners no longer linger in prison for decades, as Valladares did for 22 years. Now dissidents are routinely stopped, detained, harassed, maybe even beaten, and returned home — or even allowed to travel abroad within hours.

Dissident Guillermo Fariñas, for example, sported a Band-Aid on his scalp to cover a cut he sustained during a beating the Sunday before he traveled to Miami to meet with President Obama, El Nuevo Herald reported. Martha Beatriz Roque was detained overnight and released last week.

The number of political prisoners has also been dramatically reduced — at one point there were more than 14,000; now, some estimates put the number as low as 87.

Of course, in such a capricious regime as Cuba’s, it’s hard to discern if the young man who gets caught with marijuana in his pocket was arrested as a drug user or as a political dissenter who also happens to like weed.

The other element that has changed is that the world can now see, sometimes even in real time, the many ways in which the government violates the rights of its citizens.

“Nobody has to go investigate; it’s all out there for all to see,” Valladares said.

And yet, Cuba continues to be talked about as a beacon of progressive thinking and hopeful left-wing politics by dewy-eyed people who, in essence, see Cuba through the prism of their dislike for U.S. leadership in the world.

How a country votes on Cuba — at the UN and other bodies — directly correlates with how that country’s leader feels about the United States.

And why is that? To vote with the Cuban government allows certain countries to assert their independence from the United States, even if, or especially if, their economy is dependent on aid from Washington’s deep pockets, Valladares said.

But why must everything Cuban be put to the how-much-do-I hate-the-US-this-year test? Why can’t people dislike the United States and still be critical of a country that, essentially, has had the same rulers for 54 years?

I long for the day when, except for family ties, Cuba and the United States will be two distinct and separate, unconnected countries. Only then will the world clearly see the damage the Castro brothers have exerted on that devastated island.

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