Friday, April 18, 2003

I ought to have spotted & posted this three days ago, but despite sincere effort I don't always manage to read all the major English-language Caribbean newspapers every day: on Tuesday the Stabroek News ran the following editorial on recent events in Cuba, which I reproduce in full because Stabroek has no permanent online archive.

Crackdown in Cuba

Since March 18, 2003, seventy-eight persons in Cuba have been arrested by the authorities, charged and tried. They include independent journalists, organisers of the Varela Project (a petition for a referendum on legal reform which seeks greater personal, political and economic freedoms) and pro-democracy members of illegal opposition parties. The trials were held in improvised courts and lasted one day. A Reuters report indicates that undercover agents who had infiltrated the dissident groups gave evidence.

Human rights groups described the trials as a throwback to Stalinism. Severe sentences were handed down, one as long as 28 years. A statement from the Ministry of Justice said the dissidents were jailed for mercenary activity and other acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state. In 1999 a law had been passed providing severe sentences for passing information to the United States that could be used to bolster anti-Cuban measures such as the US embargo. The law also bans the ownership, distribution or reproduction of what it describes as subversive materials from the US government. The authorities said dissidents had been plotting with US diplomats to subvert the state.

Many in the Caribbean who do not share President Castro's ideology and who believe in an open society have nevertheless had enormous sympathy for the Cuban revolution. Fidel Castro has been admired for the achievements of his government in the field of education and health. But more than that, he was seen to have tried to chart an independent course after he took power in 1959 and though this had in fact pushed him into a dependant relationship with the Soviet Union this was understood as a predicament that at that time faced all the countries in the region, the dilemma of trying to steer an independent course between the Scylla of the American eagle and the Charybdis of the Russian bear.

So democrats in the region swallowed their qualms about the failure of the government to liberalise the social and political situation, to hold elections and to respect human rights.

But the maintaining of a one party state after 43 years in power and the resulting restrictions on basic human freedoms have been very hard to bear and these latest acts of repression are intolerable. The Varela Project, led by Oswald Paya Sardinas of the Christian Liberation Movement collected the 10,000 signatures constitutionally required to hold a referendum in Cuba. The legal reforms sought by the group are to introduce freedoms taken for granted in all democratic countries in the Caribbean, and elsewhere.

Paya has received widespread recognition for his work in the international community and also received the prestigious human rights award, the Sakharov Prize, from the European Union. He has not been arrested but members of his organisation have been. The immediate cause of the roundup seems to have been that James Cason, the head of the US Interests Section in Havana based at the Swiss Embassy allowed a group of journalists to use his official residence for a meeting. He had also visited opposition members around the island. That may be seen as somewhat provocative in the Cuban context though it has been quite normal for human rights groups in the Caribbean to seek overseas assistance of one kind or another in the past. But sensitive or not it cannot possibly justify the arrests, charges and imprisonment that have taken place recently.

We condemn this attack on independent journalists and others seeking rights of speech and assembly and other human rights freedoms. Moreover, we do not believe Caricom governments should turn a blind eye to human rights abuses of this kind by a regional colleague. Regrettably, they have done so before, as all Guyanese well remember. The dissidents had only three days to appeal. Caricom should add its voice to criticisms from governments and human rights groups of this authoritarian behaviour.

Today's edition of Stabroek publishes a reply to Tuesday's editorial (& to Wednesday's, which mentioned Cuba in passing) on the letters page:

Dear Editor,

Your references to Cuba in the editorials of April 15 and April 16, call my attention powerfully. I am wondering who is really behind these editorials? Why do you repeat the campaigns of the government of USA against Cuba? It is curious also that a newspaper of Guyana makes reference in these days to the violation of the human rights in Cuba, just when the USA government and government lackeys from Latin America try to condemn Cuba in the Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

Maybe the Stabroek News is part of the libelous papers to the service of the world superpower USA?

This kind of lie that you say in your editorial really is helping that Cuba must be invaded in a near future. Who pays you for this reason?

Your appeal to the governments of Caricom to condemn Cuba is a call to smash the solidarity that exists among our peoples, an objective that the government of US has always pursued.

I call to all Guyanese to reject your unjust considerations and to support the homeland of Marti and Fidel in order that it is not allowed that Cuba must be the target of the U.S. bombs.

Please, Mr. Editor, I request your sincerity.

Yours faithfully,
Armando Proenza, Latin Resident

Stabroek's editor replies as follows:

Editor's note:

We have usually supported Cuba editorially despite our obvious reservations about it being a one party state which does not permit freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and other freedoms which are accepted as basic constitutional rights in the English speaking Caribbean.

We recognise it as an independent Caribbean country which has provided a great deal of help to Guyana and other Caribbean countries particularly in the field of medicine. We also oppose the American embargo....

Where we part company with the Cuban government is in its wish to retain the one party state and the concomitant restrictions on freedom. This cannot be justified. "Dissidents" in Eastern Europe like Vaclav Havel were in their time routinely attacked as enemies of the state. How can legitimate opposition ever emerge in Cuba with the current mindset where all critics are labelled as counter-revolutionary? The fundamental premise is wrong, Fidel does not have a divine right to rule. Even if those pushing the Varela project and others are receiving American help that does not put them out of court, so to speak. They have a right to be heard and to put forward their views.

It is difficult for Caribbean people who fight for democratic rights in their own country to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in Cuba forever.

I disagree with the editor's last point. It clearly is not "difficult for Caribbean people who fight for democratic rights in their own country to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in Cuba forever": our politicians, journalists, columnists, academics, activists, & "liberal" opinion-makers of every variety seem perpetually eager not merely to believe that Castro's government can do no wrong, but to apotheosise the aging "revolutionary" dictator himself. And I wish I could ask Mr. Proenza if he's actually read Jose Marti, whom I doubt would recognise Castro's Cuba as the patria for which he fought & died.

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