Torture in Cuba
April 2006
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Posted on Thu, Apr. 13, 2006

Focus on Cuba’s dictatorship

On May 9, the United Nations’ General Assembly will elect its new Human
Rights Council. Eight of the 47 seats are apportioned to Latin America
and the Caribbean; nine countries, including Cuba, have announced their
candidacies. More will surely follow. Cuba, China and other U.N. member
states with deplorable records on human rights could well succeed in
their bid. Though I don’t like it, that’s U.N. realpolitik. Yet the HRC
is set up to be a stricter watchdog than the now shelved Commission on
Human Rights.

Democratic governments around the globe know that the Cuban regime is an
incorrigible violator of human rights. Yet, its most atrocious
violations happened in the 1960s, when the revolution stood tall among
most Cubans on the island and international public opinion.

Massive infringements of citizen rights and individual freedoms have
been a constant throughout. In the 1960s, preventive arrests — which
the government still exercises against peaceful opponents — were of a
different order altogether. On the eve of April 17, 1961, the soon-to-be
Bay of Pigs invasion prompted the arrest of 20,000 people. Political
trials — then and now parodies of internationally accepted standards of
due process — sentenced tens of thousands to long prison terms. Torture
and mistreatment abounded. Though most were released in the late 1970s,
some remained incarcerated. Mario Chanes and Eusebio Peñalver, for
example, served longer sentences than Nelson Mandela who is, rightfully,
honored everywhere as a moral giant. Yet they are far from household
names among human rights activists.

No dissent allowed

Firing squads and extrajudicial killings were common in the 1960s.
Thousands of men lost their lives after speedy mock trials that never
entertained the right to appeal. Between 1960 and 1966, a civil war was
fought in Cuba. As all prospects for peaceful dissent dimmed, some eight
thousand people took up arms against the revolutionary government.
Though both sides carried out extrajudicial killings of war prisoners,
the regime far outpaced the rebels. To this day, there are Cuban
families who do not know where their loved ones are buried.

The civil war began and ended in central Cuba’s Escambray mountains.
Thousands of peasants and their families were forcibly relocated to
far-away communities, ostensibly to remove them from the line of fire.
Most, however, were uprooted when the war was on the wane or had already
concluded. Might the government have feared that new foci of rebellion
would spring from the Escambray’s fiercely independent peasantry?
”Communities” is, moreover, a misnomer since people found themselves
in newly built compounds with a closely guarded, single point of entry
and exit. Pueblos cautivos (captive towns) is the name that their
residents appropriately used.

I could go on, but I’d rather ask why. Those who unleash such fury —
the world, of course, has seen much worse — usually justify it in the
pursuit of higher goals. Opponents were gusanos (worms), so what was so
wrong about smashing them for the sake of la patria (the homeland) and
social justice? At the time, most revolutionaries — Cubans of goodwill
just like their opponents — did not know or, perhaps, did not care to
know about the atrocities. In a Cuba where freedom rings, the truth will
need to be established incontrovertibly so that the simple maxim — the
ends don’t justify the means — is forever sealed in our consciences.

Let freedom ring!

Never again! For sure, only the Cuban opposition and the United States
also pursued worthy goals — democracy and freedom — with unworthy
means. That part of the story will be the subject of my next column.
Without everyone’s Never Again!, freedom will certainly not ring in Cuba.

I thought Cuba’s bid for a seat on the Human Rights Council provided an
apposite context to remember the 1960s. Clearly, the HRC’s mandate is
the present. Yet, the same Cuban principals are still in power, and
their ends continue to justify their means. Unlike four decades ago, the
defense of human rights is center stage in global affairs. I hope the
new council takes up the cause of current Cuban political prisoners and
the regime’s unyielding assaults on citizen freedoms as if Cuba were
just another dictatorship. After all, isn’t that exactly what the Cuban
regime is today?

Marifeli Pérez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at the
Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., and a professor at Florida
International University.

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