Thursday, October 11, 2018

Cuba’s worsening human rights situation: Machete attacks, more restrictive laws, and zero human rights monitoring

“The ultimate obscenity is not caring, not doing something about what you feel, not feeling! Just drawing back and drawing in, becoming narcissistic.”― Rod Serling 

Sirley Avila Leon after testifying at the UN Human Rights Council
Cuban human rights defender Sirley Avila Leon, a victim of repression, on September 24, 2018 addressed the UN Human Rights Council on what agents of the Cuban government had done to her.

“On May 24, 2015 living in Cuba I suffered an attack orchestrated by agents of the state, I was attacked with a machete to kill me cutting off my left hand and right shoulder while I covered my head with them, then cut my knees leaving me disabled for life, This was not the first attack I suffered, I was previously attacked several times, physically and verbally by the political police in Cuba: they burned my bed, I suffered arbitrary arrests, death threats, economic damages.  Only for demanding better living conditions for the peasants and their children in a rural area of ​​Las Tunas. My case is not isolated. In Cuba, the state continues to violate the human rights of Cubans, murders, imprisons and banishes those who demand rights and repress their families. To save my life, in 2016 I escaped from Cuba, since then my son, Yoerlis Peña Avila, has been threatened with death and repressed on several occasions. At this moment I fear for his life.”

Sirley had been elected to a local peoples’ power assembly at the municipal level. She thought she could help those who needed help, but the reality of the existing system demonstrated otherwise. 

Sirley Avila Leon following the May 24, 2015 machete attack
Expectations are high that a constitutional “reform” in Cuba and a new president “could help democratize the country,” but instead changes are going in the wrong direction.

The existing constitution in Cuba was not decided in a free and democratic vote nor the “reforms” that are being drafted now. It is taking an existing anti-democratic document and making it even more restrictive. For example, in the old constitution there existed a clause that a citizen initiative required 10,000 signatures for it to be officially recognized, now under the draft of the proposed constitution it raises that requirement to 50,000 signatures. They never thought 10,000 Cubans would sign a document calling for human rights reforms, because of the consequences to the signatory and their families, but with the Varela Project over 30,000 signatures were gathered. In the existing constitution there is a freedom of religion and conscience clause, but in the new draft it is just freedom of religion. Although, in practice, religion in Cuba remains subject to Communist Party control and discrimination.

Raul Castro handed over the office of the presidency to his handpicked successor Miguel Díaz-Canel on April 19, 2018. This was done to give the impression that a transition is underway in Cuba. This is not the case. General Raul Castro remains head of the Cuban Communist Party and in control of the government. General Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas, Raul's son-in-law, runs the economy. Raul Castro's son, Colonel Alexandro Castro, who negotiated the normalization of relations with the Obama Administration is an intelligence officer with close ties to the secret police. Diaz-Canel, like Osvaldo Dorticos who was president of Cuba from 1959 to 1976, answers to General Raul Castro. The succession does not empower Miguel Díaz-Canel but maintains the Castro dynasty in power.

Blanca Reyes, of the Ladies in White with other activists and members of the IACHR
One of the new laws, Decree 349, signed by President Díaz-Canel in April of 2018 further restricts spaces for artists to exercise their vocation. According to Amnesty International:

“Under the decree, all artists, including collectives, musicians and performers, are prohibited from operating in public or private spaces without prior approval by the Ministry of Culture. Individuals or businesses that hire artists without the authorization can be sanctioned, and artists that work without prior approval can have their materials confiscated or be substantially fined. Under the new decree, the authorities also have the power to immediately suspend a performance and to propose the cancelation of the authorization granted to carry out the artistic activity.”

Despite the government of Cuba being a long time and active member of the UN Human Rights Council it has missed opportunity after opportunity to address key human rights issues constructively and worked with other bad actors to weaken international human rights standards and silence human rights defenders. Thankfully, they do not always succeed.

Over the past two weeks at the UN HumanRights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Switzerland and the Inter-American Commissionon Human Rights (IACHR) in Boulder, Colorado the human rights situation in Cuba was addressed by Cuban human rights defenders. The testimony and information provided point to human rights worsening in the island nation. 

Sirley Avila Leon addresses the UN Human Rights Council on September 24, 2018
For decades, international human rights monitors have been and continue to be barred from Cuba by the government to evade scrutiny and isolate Cubans. During the adoption of the Universal Periodic Review outcome of Cuba, June 21-25, 2018, Amnesty International raised the issue that Cuba was the only country in the Americas that was closed to them. Later on Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta, Permanent Representative of Cuba to the United Nations Office at Geneva replied to Amnesty International’s comment on the refusal to accept monitors in the island, that Cuba did not require such instruments.

In addition to not allowing credible international human rights monitors into the island, the Cuban government has not permitted the existence of an independent national human rights institution in Cuba.

Furthermore, Cuba’s courts remain subordinated to Raul Castro, head of the Cuban Communist Party. This is has had repercussions on the human rights situation in Cuba.

The World Evangelical Alliance informed the UN Human Rights Council that in 2015, two thousand places of worship of a single church union had been threatened with demolition and several places of worship had been destroyed.  Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported that Cuba used a range of measures against religious leaders and human rights defenders.  Arbitrary detention remained a common tactic.  

There are prisoners of conscience in Cuba today. Dr. Eduardo Cardet of the Christian Liberation Movement, jailed since November 30, 2016, under terrible conditions, for his human rights and democracy advocacy for Cubans is one of them.

Tomás Núñez Magdariaga who has been on hunger strike for over 50 days protesting his unjust imprisonment is another. Prisoners of conscience, such as Orlando Zapata Tamayo in 2010 and Wilman Villar Mendoza in 2012, died on hunger strikes.

Extrajudicial killings by the State continue in Cuba, and they are not limited to opposition activists. The case of Mr. Alejandro Pupo Echemendia is a recent and high profile example. Police detained Mr. Pupo Echemendia and took him to a police station in Las Villas Cuba, allegedly for participating in illicit horse races. Eyewitness Abel Santiago Tamayo said Alejandro suffered a panic attack on August 9, 2018, and asked for help. A guard handcuffed Alejandro from behind and began to kick him in the back until he died. Alejandro Pupo Echemendia was 46 years old, a caregiver for the mentally ill in a psychiatric hospital. Government agents placed witnesses and Alejandro's family under duress to retract their statements.

Blanca Reyes, of the Ladies in White, addresses the IACHR
One week later, in Boulder Colorado, during the 169th Period of Sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Cuban independent journalists and human rights defenders presented “Reports on the Criminalization of Social Activists and Journalists in Cuba.”

The representative of the Ladies in White in the United States, Blanca Reyes, denounced the cruelty of the Cuban government and asked for help to free five women from her organization who are presently jailed.

"In Cuba there is a special sign of cruelty of the totalitarian Communist Government against the entire female mass and, in particular, against the Ladies in White," she affirmed. "Women who belong to that organization are imprisoned, they directly suffer the threat of being taken to a cell, they are imposed heavy fines for their public activities and their families, including their children, are also victims of the unpunished conduct of the political police.”

Blanca identified five Ladies in White presently in prison and they are: Martha Sánchez González, Nieves Matamoros, Aimara Nieto Muñoz, Yolanda Santana Ayala and Xiomara de las Mercedes Cruz Miranda.

Unlike at the UNHRC, the Cuban government does not recognize the competence of the IACHR, despite having been invited to return to the Organization of American States in 2009.

Cuban human rights defender impeded from attending UN-CERD Cuba review
Human rights defenders barred from traveling to human rights forums
The Cuban government has denied human rights defenders the right to travel to attend both the UN Human Rights Council and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights over the past couple of months.

MiriamCardet Concepción, the sister of prisoner of conscience Eduardo Cardet, was not permitted by the Cuban government to travel to attend the IACHR hearing in Boulder, Colorado. She was able, with some difficulty, to send her video testimony that was broadcast during the hearing on Monday, October 1, 2018.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (UN-CERD) met in Geneva on August 15, 2018 to examine racism in Cuba. The Cuban government not only claimed that racism was not a problem in Cuba but also told the UN-CERD that human rights defenders in Cuba face no limitations to exercise their activities. Cuban diplomats assured that there had been no reprisals or harassment of activists.

Cuban human rights defenders Juan Antonio Madrazo and Norberto Mesa, both Cubans of African descent, who were to attend the same session were detained arbitrarilyand banned by Cuban government officials from traveling to Geneva to address the question of racism in Cuba.

Two other Cuban human rights defenders were also barred by the Cuban government from traveling to Geneva to speak at the pre-session to Cuba’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in April of 2018.

There is one element of the Constitutional reform that has garnered positive international attention and that is an opening to gay marriage. It does not endanger the power monopoly that the regime seeks to preserve. This constitutional initiative by the Cuban government is a textbook example of pinkwashing. It is "the practice of presenting something, particularly a state, as gay-friendly in order to soften or downplay aspects of its reputation considered negative."

The Cuban government’s leadership, who remain in power today, carried out anti-Gay draconian policies in the past, and they are the same ones now advocating for the change on gay marriage in the constitution.

The Cuban government placed Gays and Lesbians in forced labor camps beginning in 1964 in what they called Military Units to Aid Production or UMAPs (Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción). These forced labor camps were for those suspected of or found guilty of "improper conduct."  Persons with "effeminate mannerisms": what the Cuban government called "extravagant behavior" were taken to these camps. Twenty years later with the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in Cuba the regime rounded up all who were HIV positive. Cuba is the only nation in the world that mandated universal HIV testing and enforced isolation of all virus carriers in detention facilities from 1986 to 1994.

This is not a Gay-friendly regime, despite the PR offensive.

Cuban human rights defenders continue to be barred from travel, subjected to harassment, arbitrary detentions and targeted for physical attacks ordered by the secret police. There are changes taking place in Cuba, but they are either cosmetic or make the state more repressive with the goal of perpetuating the dynastic rule of the Castro family.

If Cuba is to once again be free then one must understand the difficult existing reality and the challenges confronting the democratic resistance in the island.

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