Amnesty International takes on human rights issues from migrant crisis to Cuban dissidents during Miami meeting

“The world’s countries have failed refugees,” said Margaret Huang, interim executive director of Amnesty International USA, during the group’s April 1-3 annual meeting in Miami.
“The world’s countries have failed refugees,” said Margaret Huang, interim executive director of Amnesty International USA, during the group’s April 1-3 annual meeting in Miami.

With a new U.S.-Cuba relationship opening up the possibility of change, lawyer Laritza Diversent Cambara believes it’s an advantageous time for civil society groups like hers to press for legal recognition and more space.

Not only does Diversent — director of Cubalex, a Havana-based organization that gives legal and human rights advice — want the group to be legally recognized but she also believes it should participate in the political process in Cuba.

Diversent took part in a panel on freedom of expression, dissent and the Internet in Cuba during the opening day of Amnesty International USA’s annual meeting in Miami.

The meeting, which is being held at the Doubletree Miami Airport & Convention Center, has brought together more than 1,000 human rights activists to discuss everything from protecting Central American migrants and Cuban dissidents to gun violence in the Americas and women’s rights. It concludes Sunday.

“Through our voices, our actions, our advocacy, our art, we have the power to create a world that truly values human rights,” said Ann Burroughs, chairman of AI USA. “Whether this means urging our leaders to respect the rights of refugees, protect freedom of expression, or end mass incarceration, together we can make an impact on this city, this country and the entire world.”

In a world where Greece is contemplating deporting migrants, countries are closing borders to refugees, and Central American families are often held in prison-like detention centers in the United States, Amnesty has its plate full.

In September, the group plans to launch a global “people on the move” campaign in support of the rights of refugees and migrants. The United Nations pegged the number of displaced people worldwide at more than 60 million last year.

“The world’s countries have failed refugees,” Margaret Huang, interim executive director of AI USA, said Saturday.

During the weekend meeting, activists told dramatic stories of migrants who had disappeared or been killed as they made their way north from Central America’s Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala). They also said they were preyed on and extorted by human traffickers and criminal gangs, or were sexually abused.

“The journey to safety has never been more perilous,” said Alex Neve, AI secretary general Canada. Then refugees and migrants are often confronted with an “unfair” detention process once they reach their goal — the United States, he said.

Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martínez described the culture of violence that is pushing refugees, especially young people, out of El Salvador. Last year, he said, the murder rate was 103 per 100,000 people, and his homeland began the year with 23 murder per day.

But Huang said human rights violations also are of grave concern in the United States, pointing to gun violence and police use of lethal force. Last year, she said, nearly 1,000 people, including a disproportionate number of blacks, were killed by police.

Diversent said the most pressing human rights problem in Cuba is repression against human rights activists. The number of short-term detentions has climbed steadily in the past year.

Amnesty also is concerned about increased surveillance, harassment and attacks on peaceful protesters and will launch a campaign next year in support of human rights defenders. “We will fight a shrinking space for human rights defenders and freedom of expression,” Huang said.

For Diversent, “You can’t talk about development and security unless human rights are respected in a country.”

Cuban officials have said that human rights should be viewed through the prism of social well-being and point to Cuba’s healthcare system, free education and international medical missions. But Diversent said free education and healthcare don’t excuse repression.

Amnesty hasn’t been able to send any fact-finding delegations to Cuba since 1990. Coupled with the difficulties of Cuban Internet and phone connections, “I think there are all kinds of human rights issues we’re not able to access,” said Louise Tillotson, an Amnesty Caribbean researcher.

During the Seventh Congress of Cuba’s Communist Party later this month, electoral reform is one of the topics and a new electoral law governing the 2018 elections is expected to be adopted.

As an independent civil society organization, Cubalex has proposed three electoral reforms it would like to see adopted, including allowing candidates for office at all levels to represent a movement, a political party or political civic organization and to carry out campaigns.

Andro Nodarse-Leon, vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation, said it’s impossible to bring about change with the current political structure in Cuba. What’s needed, he said, is a decoupling of the Cuban government from its “omni-presence in the lives of Cubans,” especially its role as the main employer on the island.

Although Amnesty opposes the embargo against Cuba and says it undermines human rights, Nodarse-Leon said now isn’t the time to lift it. First, he said, conditions must be created in Cuba to ensure that the Cuban people benefit rather than a handful of people. If the embargo were lifted tomorrow, he said, “the outcome wouldn’t be a good one for the Cuban people.”

The GDP might go up, he said, but Cuba would fall short in realizing its true potential if the embargo disappeared now.

But Mavis Anderson, a senior associate at the Latin American Working Group, an activist organization, said now is the time to work toward ending the embargo. She outlined the bills pending in Congress to allow free travel by Americans to the island and to reduce some of the business restrictions imposed by the embargo.

“There is some new energy in Congress [for changes in Cuba policy] believe it or not, especially among Republicans,” she said.

While she said the changes made by the Obama administration to allow more travel and commerce with Cuba are positive, they “need to be written into law” so they cannot be changed at whim by the next president.

She cited polls showing growing public support for lifting the embargo and said, “Congress needs to catch up with its constituents.”

Her advice to those in the audience: “Travel to Cuba yourself, talk to the Cuban people and bring their message back to your legislators at home.”

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