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US-Cuba deal to restore ties puts spotlight on island’s human rights record

US-Cuba deal to restore ties puts spotlight on island’s record
Published December 19, 2014 Associated Press

HAVANA – To many exiles and their allies, is a
brutal who locks up dissenters in gulag-like jails, snuffs out
political discourse and condemns his people to socialist poverty.

Cuba’s supporters see the government as heroic, its sins justified by
the behavior of its giant enemy to the north, and offset by the fact it
provides health care and education that most developing countries could
only dream of.

As often is the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.

President Barack Obama said on Friday that he began his historic call
with Castro earlier in the week by delivering a 15-minute lecture on
human rights and political , adding: “This is still a regime that
oppresses its people.”

Even so, he said that US policy had failed to change Cuba for more than
a half century and it was time to try something new.

Human rights activists welcomed the overhaul of US-Cuba relations, but
added that the Communist government has much to answer for, including a
denial of freedom of speech, the banning of independent labor unions and
a lack of fair and competitive elections.

“I believe that President Obama is making the right decision, but that
does not mean that our serious human rights concerns with regard to Cuba
have gone away,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director for the
Americas division at Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press. He
said the abuses were “part of state policy, systematic and widespread.”

Castro has defended the single-party political system, saying open
elections would be tantamount to “legalizing the party or parties of
imperialism on our soil.”

Accusations of human rights abuses have dogged the Cuban government
since the beginning, starting with summary trials and executions after
the 1959 revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista, whose regime
committed its own abuses, including torture, executions and
of the press.

In the years that followed, priests, gay people and others considered
socially dangerous were sent to labor camps in the countryside, and
political opponents were jailed or forced into exile.

The panorama has undoubtedly shifted in recent years, particularly since
handed power to his brother in 2006.

In 2010, Raul Castro negotiated a deal with the Roman Catholic Church
and Spain to free the last of 75 political dissidents who had been
rounded up in 2003 and sentenced to long jail terms, and he has allowed
more church freedom on the island, building on the opening worked out
between Fidel and Pope John Paul II.

Amnesty International counts five Cuban inmates as “prisoners of
conscience,” down sharply from years past, though Marselha Goncalves
Margerin, the group’s advocacy director for the Americas, said Amnesty
has campaigned for others that don’t meet its strict definition.

“Cuba has always used the excuse of the U.S. and restrictions to
crack down on dissidents,” she said. “Once this is removed, we do hope
this will generate human rights changes.”

As part of this week’s deal with the United States, Castro agreed to
free 53 people the White House describes as dissidents, though their
identities have not been released. It was not clear if any of those on
Amnesty’s list were among them.

Elizardo Sanchez, one of the only independent human rights activists
tolerated on the island, said he has been getting calls from inmates
asking him if he has a list and whether they’re on it, but he’s had to
say he doesn’t know. There’s been no evidence of any mass release, he said.

Sanchez also welcomed the restoration of diplomatic ties with the United
States, despite what he described as a sharp increase in acts of
harassment and intimidation.

While the government has moved away from sentencing dissidents to long
jail terms, he said that short-term detentions have spiked under Raul
Castro, from 2,074 in 2010 to 8,410 through the first 11 months of this
year. Cuban authorities dismiss his findings as a fiction, and consider
the dissidents to be paid stooges of Washington.

While the Castro government has not budged on the issue of a one-party
state, Vivanco says that Cuba’s rights problems aren’t in the same
league as a country such as North Korea, and says there has been
movement on some key issues such as freedom of that was tightly
controlled under Fidel Castro.

Prominent dissidents such as the Yoani Sanchez have been allowed
to travel under the reforms, using their trips to speak out against
government policy.

The younger Castro has opened the island to some private enterprise, and
allowed Cubans to own cellphones and computers. Rights for the LGBT
community have also advanced under Raul Castro, whose daughter is the
island’s most prominent advocate for gay rights. The government’s free
universal health care system now pays for gender reassignment surgery,
and gay pride parades are an annual fixture.

Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Center at Florida
International , acknowledged progress on some issues like
freedom of religion, but added that Raul Castro largely shared the
attitudes of his brother.

“Since Raul took over, repressive strategies have become more subtle,
not necessarily less brutal,” he said.

Elizardo Sanchez warned against believing that an improving relationship
between Washington and Havana would change much on the human rights front.

“I don’t think there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between the
normalization of relations between the countries and the necessary
implementation of reforms by the Cuban government,” he said.

Obama concurred, saying he did not expect improvements overnight.

Source: US-Cuba deal to restore ties puts spotlight on island’s human
rights record | Fox News –

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