Events of 1990

Human Rights Developments

The Cuban government continued to systematically deny its citizens the right to exercise their fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression, association and assembly, the right to privacy and due process, and the right to travel. The guarantees written into Cuba's laws do more to hinder than to protect those rights. And in any event, Cuba lacks institutions independent of the government and the governing Communist Party that could ensure respect for basic rights. Although all Cubans are affected by the institutionalized suppression of civil and political rights by the 32-year-old military government of Fidel Castro, the target increasingly has been the fragile "civil society" that began to emerge in 1988 when international scrutiny of Cuba's human rights practices was at its height.

There is no free press in Cuba. All media are state-owned or state-controlled. Nothing is permitted to be published on government-controlled printing presses that is not "in keeping with the objectives of socialist society." Attempts by human rights and other independent activists to distribute newsletters, type-written and reproduced on carbon paper, have been relentlessly suppressed under the law against "clandestine printing."

Cuba is a one-party state. Opposition political parties and independent civic groups are illegal. Cubans are permitted to belong only to officially controlled "mass organizations," which serve as little more than a medium for them to demonstrate their "revolutionary integration." Rights advocacy groups have been repeatedly denied official recognition. Members of such groups are imprisoned for "illegal association."

Freedom of movement is restricted. Only Cubans over a certain age – 40 for women and 45 for men (recently reduced from 50 and 55) – are free to travel abroad and return to Cuba. Cubans apply to emigrate at the risk of losing their jobs, belongings, and homes. Those who try and fail to flee illegally by crossing the Florida straits on a boat or raft are imprisoned.

Cuba is also a police state that denies its citizens' right to privacy. Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), neighborhood surveillance groups, monitor and report on Cubans at home, at work and at school. The CDRs were created, according to the Cuban press, "with the sacred mission of defending the revolution and blocking the political action of its enemies." As part of this mission, they twice in 1990 organized huge mobs of people to gather at the homes of human rights monitors where meetings were being held, to chant slogans, yell insults and assault those who dared to leave, in a demonstration of their ostensibly spontaneous "repudiation" of "counterrevolutionaries." Cuba lacks an independent judiciary. The judicial branch is subordinate to the executive. In the courts, Cubans are defended by lawyers whose loyalty is to the state, not to their client. Judges upholding "socialist legality" enforce the will of the government. In addition, there is no independent legislature, and no legally recognized independent labor unions or other civic organizations.

Despite these serious constraints on fundamental freedoms, a number of fledgling human rights advocacy and monitoring associations and pro-democracy groups continued to operate during all or part of 1990, even at the risk of persecution and imprisonment. Unofficial groups such as the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, the Cuban Human Rights Party, the Association for Free Art, the Movement for Democratic Integration, and the Sendero Verde ecology and peace movement have met, produced newsletters, held press conferences with foreign journalists and made contacts with diplomats. For such activities, the Cuban national and state security police arrested a total of more than 100 members and supporters of those groups in 1989 and 1990, and some 30 were still in custody at the end of 1990 – serving prison sentences, detained without trial or under house arrest. These detentions had effectively decimated several of the independent groups cited above.

The government's campaign against the independent activists in 1990 was marked by especially draconian reprisals, such as the day-long "acts of repudiation" noted above, at the homes of Gustavo and Sebastian Arcos of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights; prison sentences as high as seven years for purely peaceful dissent, as in the case of Esteban González, one of six imprisoned members of the Movement for Democratic Integration; and attempts to discredit prominent activists by linking them with alleged terrorist groups, as was feared in the case of Samuel Martínez Lara of the Cuban Human Rights Party, who was in his ninth month of state-security detention without trial at the end of 1990.

US Policy

The value of the increasingly reliable human rights reporting being done by the US Interests Section in Havana and the State Department in Washington continued to be undermined by the Bush administration's single-minded campaign against the Cuban government at the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). Although Cuba is fully deserving of UN criticism for its unyielding human rights repression – and has shown considerable responsiveness to such criticism in the recent past – the US-led campaign to condemn Cuba was marred by the administration's widely perceived failure to devote similar energy to comparably abusive US friends. Although the US generally voted in favor of resolutions critical of abusive governments with which it maintains closer relations, it failed to devote anywhere near comparable energies to the behind-the-scenes lobbying that is frequently needed to enact critical resolutions. The result was continuing support for the view that the campaign to condemn Cuba was driven more by ideological than human rights concerns, and a correspondingly reduced inclination on the part of many nations to endorse the sort of firm condemnation that the Cuban government deserved. A weak, though still critical, resolution thus emerged in 1990.

Vice President Dan Quayle even became involved in the lobbying effort at the United Nations. According to the Vice President, in December 1989 he asked UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar to produce a report on his contacts with the Cuban government on human rights matters and to submit it to the UNCHR during the 1990 session, and the Secretary General promised to do so. However, in January 1990, as the administration geared up for the UNCHR annual meeting in Geneva, the Secretary General wrote to the Vice President to inform him that he would submit a report to the UNCHR only if the commission formally and specifically requested it. Quayle then publicly protested to Pérez de Cuéllar for allegedly going back on his word. The resolution adopted by the UNCHR in March 1990, unlike the vaguely worded 1989 resolution, now explicitly calls on the Secretary General to report on his contacts with the Cuban government during the 1991 UNCHR session.

Much of the blame for the one-dimensional focus of the US delegation to the UNCHR lay on Ambassador Armando Valladares, the former long-term prisoner of the Castro government, whose concern with human rights seemed rarely to extend beyond his native island and virtually never reached US friends. In June, Ambassador Valladares reinforced his image as an ideologically driven advocate of human rights by attacking an initiative by a leading Cuban human rights activist simply because it reflected a method of promoting Cuban human rights that was not premised on the overthrow of the Castro government. Gustavo Arcos Bergnes, a former political prisoner who is head of the independent Havana-based Cuban Committee for Human Rights, had released a statement calling for dialogue among Cubans – including the Cuban government and the Cuban exile community – about the future of Cuba. "Compatriots," he said, "the Cuban Committee for Human Rights once again and despite the abuses and harassment to which we are subjected...reiterates its willingness to debate."

To this appeal, Ambassador Valladares responded, "the statements of the Committee [for Human Rights], made by its leader Gustavo Arcos Bergnes and supported by its representatives in exile, are based on false suppositions and alterations of Cuban reality that benefit the dictatorship of Fidel Castro, and constitute treason to those who struggled, died and still remain for almost thirty years in prison" [emphasis added]. Ambassador Valladares concluded by stating, "with the same enthusiasm that I offered support to these groups when I considered it useful to the cause, I now withdraw it totally for considering the contrary." The comments caused an uproar among Cubans in the United States and shocked the beleaguered human rights community in Cuba, much of which had considered Valladares its principal defender abroad.

Ambassador Valladares's comments came at a time when the Cuban government was intensifying its repression of human rights and other independent activities. Only three months earlier, Gustavo Arcos and his brother Sebastian had been subjected to the above-mentioned "acts of repudiation" which were staged, ironically and undoubtedly intentionally, during the week of March 5, precisely the time when Ambassador Valladares was at the UNCHR in Geneva campaigning for a resolution on human rights in Cuba.

This was not the first time that Ambassador Valladares had criticized Cuban activists. As he noted in his statement against Arcos, "already on one occasion I had to publicly discredit the statements of the head of the Movement of National Reconciliation," referring to his criticism of Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconiliation. In one instance in January 1989, Ambassador Valladares estimated the number of political prisoners in Cuba to be close to 10,000. He used this figure to refute a statement by Sánchez that the number of political prisoners, including those convicted of attempting to leave the country illegally and conscientious objectors, was 600 or 700. Sánchez's estimate was in fact more closely supported by the most reliable figure of 395 (which does not include conscientious objectors) reported in 1988 by the ICRC, at a time when it had access to Cuba's prisons. Sánchez was arrested in August 1989 and is now serving a two-year prison sentence for "dissemination of false news."

Armando Valladares languished in Cuban jails for 22 years and, understandably, must hold great personal resentment for the Castro government. However, he did a disservice to efforts to promote human rights in Cuba when, as an appointed and highly visible spokesman for the US government on human rights issues, he gave vent to personal feelings on matters that were perceived to be within his official competence. The comments on Arcos, if taken as a statement of US policy, suggested that Arcos was no longer of concern to the US government, and thus encouraged Cuban authorities to impose on him the same fate as his imprisoned colleagues. Fortunately, the State Department took steps publicly to distance itself from Valladare's comment. It issued a statement on June 15 noting that Valladares acted as US ambassador to the UNCHR only during its annual six-week session, and was free to express his personal opinions at all other times. But this fine distinction was understandably lost on many, particularly since Ambassador Valladares has been used as an official spokesman on other occasions, as in his September 20, 1989 testimony on human rights in Cuba before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, and on July 12, 1990 before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.

More important, the State Department's statement made no specific reference to Arcos. To blunt the potential danger emanating from the Valladares attack, the State Department at minimum should have publicly recognized the importance of the work being done by Arcos and the Cuban Human Rights Committee.

Valladares put an end to the dispute over his statement by resigning in late December, despite administration urgings that he stay on. The resignation provides an ideal opportunity for the administration to launch a more balanced campaign at the UN, matching the effort on Cuba with a similar effort against a comparably abusive US friend.

Just as the Cuban government curtails the right of Cubans to travel freely, the US government also restricts the right of its citizens to travel. As a signatory of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the United States vowed to "facilitate wider travel." However, the US continues to limit travel to a number of countries, including Cuba, for ideological reasons. The limits on travel to Cuba – justified under the economic embargo imposed by the US in 1962 – are the strictest of these restrictions. Only certain categories of travelers are authorized by the US Treasury Department to visit and spend money in Cuba: US or foreign government officials or officials of any intergovernmental organization of which the US is a member; those with family members in Cuba; academics and researchers with Cuba-specific expertise; and news media personnel. Ordinary Americans who wish to visit Cuba as tourists, and others, are not permitted to do so. These restrictions, of concern in their own right, also impose a significant cost on efforts to monitor human rights in Cuba by significantly limiting the number of visitors to the country.

The 1988 trade bill which lifted embargo restrictions on the importation of informational materials, such as Cuban books, films and records, was an important step in the campaign for free trade in ideas. Unfortunately, the Treasury Department under the Bush administration has excluded travel from its interpretation of the law, even though the legislation's sponsor, Rep. Howard Berman, maintains that Congress had acted the law "with the understanding that travel would in many instances be essential to arranging such trade" in informational materials.

The Work of Americas Watch

Two Americas Watch representatives traveled to Havana in September to attend for the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders. While in Cuba, they met with members of the beleaguered human rights community and collected information on human rights conditions. Their requests for meetings with Cuban government officials went unanswered. In May, Americas Watch also spent several days in Miami interviewing former political prisoners who had recently been released from prison.

In addition to several press releases on human rights in Cuba in 1990, Americas Watch issued two newsletters: "Jailing the Human Rights Movement, August 1989 – March 1990," and "Pro-Democracy Activists to Stand Trial, June 1990." Americas Watch plans to issue a follow-up newsletter on the continuing imprisonment of Cuban dissidents, to be published in January 1991, in time for the UNCHR meetings in Geneva.

On March 13, Americas Watch testified at joint hearings held by two House Foreign Affairs subcommittees on US-imposed restrictions on Americans' right to travel to certain countries, including Cuba. On July 12, Americas Watch testified on human rights in Cuba before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. And on October 2, Americas Watch testified on the same subject before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States.

Early in 1990, Americas Watch's 1989 report, The Need to Sustain the Pressure, was published in Spanish translation.

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