Thursday, May 6, 2010

"The Heroes of Cuba" - NYRB (Part II)

In my last post I introduced, "The Heroes of Cuba," an article by Nik Steinberg and Daniel Wilkinson (both with the Americas division of Human Rights Watch) included in the May 27, 2010 edition of The New York Review of Books.

After reading the article, my assessment is that it is surely one of the sharpest, most well-informed, and bravest essays I have read in a long, long time about the human rights situation in Cuba on the one hand, and about U.S. policy toward Cuba on the other.

Since the article is not yet on-line, I will follow up my previous post with more quotes from it and perhaps a few of my own humble observations.

The article is divided into two roughly equal halves, the first of which is a detailed, unflinching description of Cuba's abysmal record on human rights and fundamental freedoms (drawn from the Human Rights Watch report released on November 18, 2009, "New Castro, Same Cuba: Political Prisoners in the Post-Fidel Era"). This is followed with a sharp assessment of current U.S. policy along with a number of specific suggestions for "a way forward."

The fact that the article begins with such a devestating and convincing description of the Cuban government's human rights abuses is to the authors' great credit since it is common for American-based writers to focus first on U.S. policy, giving only lip service to the human rights issue.

However, the article goes even further than that by offering one of the most incisive analyses that I have ever read of the strange and anamolous phenomenon whereby "the notion that to criticize Cuba is to abet its more powerful enemies was, for Fidel Castro, the key to achieveing what his prisons alone could not - ensuring that his critics on the island remained isolated and largely ignored."

The report goes on to describe the Orwellian crime of "dangerousness" and the government's various strategies aimed at silencing its internal critics and isolating them from their potential audience - by throwing them in prison.

"Those who continue to speak out while in prison are isolated even further. One man was arrested and sentenced to four years for 'dangerousness' after he tried to hand out copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in public in 2006. In 2008, he attempted to commemorate International Human Rights Day (Dec. 10) by reading the Declaration aloud to fellow inmates. But according to his wife, a guard cut him short, ordering him to eat the text - literally. When he refused, he was beaten, thrown into solitary confinement for weeks, and sentenced in a closed-door hearing to six more years in prison for disrespecting authority."

The article then describes how the regime attempts to silence and control those critics who are not in prison by denying them the rights of free movement and permission to travel abroad. "While not all dissidents are locked up," they write, "nearly all are effectively imprisoned in the island itself - by [the government practice of] requiring its citizens to obtain permission to leave the country - in clear violation of international law."

The article names blogger Yoani Sanchez as a case in point of this practice, she having been denied permission to leave the country on tree consecutive occassions.

Furthermore, its assessent of what it calls a "nascent blogosphere" is spot on in that it heralds its emergence while recognizing the severe and effective constraints placed on it by the regime.

"The emergence of a nascent blogosphere has been heralded as a sign that Cuba is opening up, yet the government systematically blocks critical websites and strictly controls access, forcing bloggers to upload their posts using thumb drives and illegal back channels. Because an hour's use costs roughly one third of Cubans' monthly wages, and since there are few connections outside of cities, the average Cuban has no access to the Internet. Although Sanchez was named one of Time magazine's one hundrerd most influential people, most Cubans on the island have never heard of her, let alone read her blog."

This first section of the article ends with the perceptive observation, "The political prisoners may be small in number, but they are a chilling reminder to all Cubans of what has been a basic fact of life for half a century: to criticize the Castros is to condemn oneself to years of enforced solitude."

Maybe Garcia Marquez got it only half right when he titled his classic novel, "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

The second half of the article, which I will address in my next post, shifts its focus to assessing U.S. policy. But here's a quick tidbit that perfectly captures the skillful way the Cuban government manipulates "national sovereignty" in order to trample on its citizens "individual sovereignty" - and the way U.S. policy makes this strategy so easy for the regime:

"Invoking national sovereignty may be the most common tactic used by governments around the globe - and across the political spectrum - to counter criticism of their abusive practices. It is the international equivalent of the 'states' rights' claim that segregationists in the US South used for years to defend their racist laws and policies. The aim is to shift the focus of public concern from the rights of abuse victims to the rights (real and imagined) of the states that abuse them."

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