Monday, April 22, 2013

Cuba: A Forum on Human Rights Pt. 3

The cause of human rights is a single cause, just as the people of the world are a single people. - Oswaldo Payá

The human rights situation in Cuba is dismal and thousands of Cubans have died either trying to flee the dictatorship or attempting to bring an end to the communist regime. Courageous men such as Jorge Luis Garcia Perez "Antunez" who openly declared in a public space in 1990 that Cuba needed to undergo reforms like those taking place in Eastern Europe would find themselves imprisoned for oral enemy propaganda and in Antunez's case would spend the next 17 years in prison. He emerged from prison in 2007 and has continued his nonviolent struggle for change in Cuba. His wife, Yris Perez Aguilera, has been repeatedly attacked and struck in the head leading to the development of a large cyst and the back of her head and other troubling symptoms that have not been addressed by medical professionals due to the interference of state security.

When Cubans have risen up in large numbers they have been met both with force and on some occasions with the option of escape as was the case in 1980 with Mariel and during the 1994 rafter crisis. Both migration events were due to large protests that threatened the regime. In 1980, 10,000 Cubans stormed and occupied the Peruvian embassy in Havana and on August 5, 1994 thousands of Cubans took to the streets of Havana chanting freedom. Many of the demonstrators, who did not escape into the sea aboard rafts, were filmed by state security agents and later beaten and detained.

These are the exceptions not the rule. At other times the Cuban state security apparatus has used sand bags, snipers, and other vessels to attack and massacre rafters, defenseless swimmers, and Cubans fleeing on other vessels to a life in freedom. One well documented example is the July 13, 1994 tugboat sinking in which 37 men, women and children were massacred by Cuban government agents. At the same time Cubans living abroad are also restricted from returning to their homeland. As many as 300,000 are banned from returning and those who do are subjected to more restrictions than non-Cubans.

That is not to say that non-Cubans do not face danger visiting the island. Two cases dramatize the dangers of visiting a state that does not have the rule of law. Joachim Løvschall, a Danish student studying Spanish at the University of Havana gunned down by an AK-47 wielding Cuban guard as he walked home on the evening of March 29,1997. The body remained hidden for days. The shooter was never identified. Secondly, is the case of Alan Gross, an American citizen, he was arrested on December 3, 2009. His "crime" attempting to provide uncensored internet access to a local Jewish community in Cuba. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison in a show trial. He has lost 100 pounds during his captivity.

Often times when someone asks "How have the Castro brothers remained in power for more than half a century?" the questioner is also implicitly asking: "What are Cubans doing to obtain their freedom?" Both questions are legitimate.

One must recall that Cuba is not only a totalitarian dictatorship but the original generation of brutal dictators are still hanging on to power. The Soviet Union held on to power for 74 years and Communist China's dictatorship is still in power after 64 years this coming October 1. The communist dictatorship in North Korea run by one family has been in power since September 9, 1948. This type of system tends to stay in power and is difficult to dislodge. In the case of Cuba, the Castro brothers have been in power since January 1, 1959.

The struggle against communist regimes typically involves two phases. The first an armed uprising as was the case in Poland in 1944, in Hungary in 1956, and throughout most of Eastern Europe. The same holds true for Cuba between 1959 and 1965 there were armed partisans, many of them farmers, up in the mountains of the Escambray who were killed. The Castro regime called it the "war against the bandits."

The second phase is nonviolent and involves human rights activism, the emergence of alternative social institutions and independent civil society. In Poland it was the Solidarity movement, and in Czechoslovakia it was the Velvet Revolution and in Estonia it was the "Singing Revolution." Although the collapse of these regimes occurred quickly in the media cycle; the actual opposition dynamics took years and decades.

This type of nonviolent movement has also been underway in Cuba for some time. For example, the Christian Liberation Movement was founded in 1988 by lay Catholics at their local parish in Havana in the neighborhood of the Cerro. Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas was the chief spokesman of the movement and the chief strategist behind initiatives such as the Varela Project, the Heredia Project and the Peoples Path.

The Varela Project, named after a 19th Century Cuban priest, sought to reform the Cuban legal system working within its own laws via referendum. According to Article 88(g) of the Cuban Constitution Cubans can push through a legislative initiative via a petition with 10,000 signatures. In May of 2002 Oswaldo Payá along with Regis Iglesias Ramirez, Tony Diaz Sanchez and others turned in 11,020 signatures to the rubber stamp Cuban National Assembly.

The Cuban government's response was to organize its own mandatory petition drive to make the Cuban Constitution "unchangeable" and on March 18, 2003 it launched the Cuban Black Spring rounding up 100 activists and sentencing 75 of them to long prison terms of up to 28 years in prison. The dictatorship thought that this draconian response along with the execution of 3 young Afro-Cubans who had tried to hijack a ferry out of Cuba would shut down dissent. They thought wrong.

Within days of the crackdown the mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of the 75 activists formed the Ladies in White. Meeting on Sundays they would go to Mass at the Catholic Church and then march silently carrying white gladioli demanding that their loved ones be freed. They would also hold literary teas at the home of the chief spokeswoman of the movement, Laura Pollán, a former school teacher. Ten years later they are still marching, their loved ones now out of prison, they continue to walk demanding that all political prisoners be freed and the laws changed so that new ones not replace them.

The leaders of the nonviolent civic resistance movement have paid the ultimate price in their struggle for freedom. Laura Pollán after years of suffering beatings, a fracture, injections from government mobs, became ill and in the space of a week died on October 14, 2011. A Cuban dissident doctor who examined her treatment described it as "purposeful medical neglect."

 Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and the youth leader of his movement, Harold Cepero, both died in a car crash under suspicious circumstances on July 22, 2012. The Payá family has called for an international investigation into the deaths of both Oswaldo and Harold. Rosa María Payá, Oswaldo's daughter, traveled to the United Nations Human Rights council and requested an international inquiry into her father's and Harold's deaths only to be interrupted by the Cuban government and a who's who of the worse human rights violators on the planet: Belarus, China, Nicaragua, Russia, and Pakistan.

Berta Soler is the new spokeswoman for the Ladies in White and upon arriving in Spain denounced  Laura Pollán's suspicious death along with Oswaldo's and called for the freedom of all political prisoners. Meanwhile in Cuba arbitrary detentions are on the rise and women are being physically brutalized by government agents. A fifteen year old girl was repeatedly knifed and scarred for life for defending the Ladies in White in November 2012 and needed 66 stitches to seal up her wounds. A sixty year old lady, who is a member of the Ladies in White, was repeatedly struck in the head with a blunt object and needed more than 30 stitches. The Payá family has received death threats at their home.

Cubans need you to keep your eyes on what is happening in Cuba and to demonstrate your solidarity with these courageous human rights defenders. Their lives and the future of a free Cuba may depend on it.

Thank you for your time.

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