A United Nations review on Wednesday of Cuba's human rights record highlighted the persistent divide between Cuba and the United States as Cuban delegates once again cited the U.S. embargo against the island as the main obstacle to its development and American counterparts attacked Cuba's electoral system as a sham.
The U.N. Human Rights Council periodically reviews the human rights records of all its 193 member nations and Cuba was one of 14 whose records are being reviewed during this session in Geneva. Cuba's last review was in May 2013. Recommendations for Cuba are expected to be adopted Friday.
In his remarks, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said the "tightening of the economic, commercial and financial blockade [the term Cuba uses for the embargo] imposed by the United States against Cuba and its extraterritorial application provoke deprivations and continue to be the principal obstacle to the economic and social development of the country."
But Michele Roulbet, the U.S. delegate, took aim at the recent Cuban presidential transition in which Miguel Díaz-Canel took over for the retiring leader Raúl Castro, who nonetheless remained as head of Cuba's powerful Communist Party. Díaz-Canel, who was selected as Castro's successor by the National Assembly of People's Power, Cuba's parliament, was the only candidate vying for the office.
"The April presidential transition again robbed the Cuban people of any real choice in shaping their country's future," said Roulbet. The United States contends the Cuban government stacked the system against independent candidates who were not allowed to run for National Assembly seats and thus had no say in selection of the president.
Rodríguez defended the Cuban electoral process, saying that elections in Cuba take place "in total liberty" and conform with Cuban electoral law.
"Our electoral processes are not media contests between elitist political parties, in which candidates make promises they don't complete, division, hatred, lies and corruption are promoted, technologies are used to manipulate the will of the voters; or the ethical conduct of the contestants is sacrificed in the interest of electoral advantage," Rodríguez said.
Some 140 countries signed up to give statements during Cuba's review. In order to give ample time for presentations by Cuban officials, the other delegations only got about 50 seconds for their presentations in order to finish in the allotted 3 1/2 hours.
"The Cuban government continues to criminalize independent civil society and severely restricts the freedoms of expression, association, religion or belief and the right of peaceful assembly," Roulbet said.
The United States had three recommendations for the Cuban delegation: reform its one-party system and allow for free and fair multi-party elections; stop detaining journalists, opposition members and human rights defenders; and release individuals "arbitrarily detained and imprisoned for peaceful assembly, investigating and reporting on government activity or expressing political dissident."
Roulbet also said that Cuba should allow such people to travel freely both internationally and domestically. The United States says members of the Cuban opposition were prevented from participating in the 2018 Summit of the Americas in Lima as well as the U.N.'s periodic review process.
In a later press release, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley further drove home the U.S. point of view. “A country with a human rights record as abysmal as Cuba’s is no stranger to silencing its critics. But the Cuban government can’t silence the United States," she said. "We will continue to stand up for the Cuban people and get loud when the Cuban government deprives its people of their human rights and fundamental freedoms and robs them of free, fair, and competitive elections."
While the Bahamas commended Cuba for "its exemplary public health efforts," Brazil urged Cuba to "adopt tangible measures to eliminate restrictions on freedom of expression and association." It also recognized the progress that Cuba has made in health and education.
Bulgaria, meanwhile, urged Cuba "to eliminate the arbitrary detentions of human rights defenders."
In his 25-minute presentation, Rodríguez said that "the guarantee for the exercise of human rights is a priority obligation of the state." Those who try to subvert the constitutional order and the political system in the service of an "external agenda" of regime change, he said, don't "deserve the noble description of defenders of human rights but [should be] described as agents of a foreign power."
While the review was being conducted in Geneva, human rights activists from both inside and outside the island gathered in Miami at the headquarters of the Cuban Democratic Directorate to watch the live webcast.
The Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba complained that Cuba had flooded the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights with letters sent by Communist Party organizations, the Cuban Women's Federation and other organizations affiliated with the government that contained "absurd praise about the Cuban system."
The Human Rights Council received 224 submissions from those considered stakeholders in the review process. Around 17 of the submissions said Cuba's constitutional and legislative framework "guaranteed the enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms," according to the U.N.
But dissident groups also were allowed to submit statements. The Cuban Human Rights Observatory, for example, sent a statement that said Cuba hadn't undertaken any reforms to promote the exercise of political freedoms.