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Salim Lamrani

Salim Lamrani

Posted: July 7, 2010 12:31 PM

An initial finding

In the West, the name Cuba is inevitably associated with the issue of human rights. European and U.S. media stigmatize the largest island in the Caribbean repeatedly on this matter. No other country in the Americas is so singled out as is the homeland of José Martí, which is subject to media coverage disproportionate to its size. In fact, events that would go unnoticed elsewhere in Latin America or the world are spread immediately by the international press when it comes to Cuba.

Thus, the February 2010 suicide of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a prisoner convicted of common crimes in Cuba, was pounced upon by the media much more than the discovery in January 2010 of a mass grave containing 2,000 bodies of trade unionists and human rights activists killed by the Colombian army. Likewise, the protests by Cuban opponents appear regularly in the Western press which, at the same time, censors the atrocities - more than 500 cases of killings and disappearances - committed by the Honduran military junta, first under Roberto Micheletti and later under Porfirio Lobo, which currently rules that country following the June 2009 coup d'etat against its democratically elected president, Jose Maneul Zelaya.

The United States officially justified the imposition of economic sanctions --in place since July 1960 and which affect all sectors of Cuban society, particularly the most vulnerable-- based on violations of human rights. From 1960 to 1991, Washington had said that the alliance with the Soviet Union was the reason for its hostility towards Cuba. Since the collapse of the Eastern bloc, different administrations from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama have used the rhetoric of human rights to explain the anachronistic state of siege, which far from affecting Cuba's leaders, imposes the cost of the two nation's political differences upon the elderly, women and children.

For its part and using the same rationale, the European Union has imposed its Common Position - the only one in the world - upon the Cuban government since 1996, limiting bilateral exchanges. This stigmatization is the pillar of the foreign policy of Brussels towards Havana and represents the principle obstacle to the normalization of bilateral relations. Between 2003 and 2008, the European Union also imposed political, diplomatic and cultural sanctions on Cuba, at least officially, for the same reasons.

A legitimate stigma?

This is not to say that Cuba is beyond reproach in the matter of human rights nor that it has not committed any violations. Indeed, Cuba is far from being a perfect society and there are some attacks on certain fundamental rights.

However, one must ask why there is such stigmatization by Western media, the U.S. and the European Union. Does Cuba in fact represents a special situation with respect to human rights? Is it worse than the rest of the continent? Are Washington, Brussels and the Western media genuinely concerned about it? Do they really have sufficient moral authority to set themselves up as judges?

To answer these questions, the 2010 report by Amnesty International (AI) provides an interesting focus. Ten countries will be subjected to a comparative analysis, five on the American continent (Canada, United States, Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia) and five from the European Union (France, Germany, UK, Spain and the Czech Republic -which is at the forefront of nations opposing the normalization of relations with Cuba).

Human rights in Cuba

According to AI, "Civil and political rights continued to be severely restricted by the authorities" in Cuba. AI refers to "55 prisoners of conscience [] detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression." In a statement on March 18, 2008, AI nevertheless acknowledged that these people were condemned "for having received funds or materials from the U.S. government to carry out activities that the authorities consider subversive and damaging to Cuba," which constitutes a criminal offense in Cuba and as well as in every other country in the world.

The organization also notes that "many [opponents] reported that they were beaten during arrest." Severe restrictions still weigh on freedom of expression, according to AI, since "all mass media and the internet remained under state control." Moreover, the websites of the opposition are blocked in Cuba and can only be viewed from outside the country. Several dissidents were arrested and later released. AI also condemns acts of intimidation against the opposition. Furthermore, "restrictions on freedom of movement prevented journalists and human rights and political activists from carrying out legitimate and peaceful activities." Thus, the opposition figure Yoani Sanchez has not received permission to leave the country to receive an award in the United States.

Nevertheless, AI points out that in May 2009, Cuba "was re-elected to the [UN] Human Rights Council for another three-year term", thus illustrating that most of the international community does not shares the view of Brussels and Washington regarding the human rights situation in Cuba.

Finally, AI recognizes that U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba "continued to have a detrimental impact on the economic and social rights of Cubans. US legislation restricting exports of US manufactured or patented supplies and equipment to Cuba continued to hinder access to medicine and medical technologies." U.S. law restricting exports to the island of products and materials manufactured or patented in the United States continues to hinder access to medicines and medical equipment." AI adds that United Nations agencies present in Cuba also are "also effected by the embargo."

Thus, as illustrated in the AI report, Cuba is not irreproachable in terms of respect for human rights.

Human rights in the Americas

It makes sense at this point to put the Cuban reality into perspective in the context of the rest of the continent.

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