Some are held captive in tiny, windowless cells; others are confined in over-crowded and squalid dormitories. Most go without basic health care and food staples; a few undergo regular beatings. All are denied basic religious freedoms, and none has been visited by members of the International Red Cross. Such is life for “enemies of the state” imprisoned in Cuba.
We will excuse you if you think we are writing about terrorist suspects imprisoned at the Guant??¡namo Bay detention facility. We are not.
Americans have heard much about the supposedly deplorable conditions at Gitmo. But prisoners there are doing just fine. A recently-released Pentagon review found that conditions there are in accordance with the Geneva conventions, and Attorney General Eric Holder came away “impressed” after visiting in late February.
The real inhumanity in Cuba’s prisons isn’t happening to the 250 or so “enemy combatants” at Gitmo but to the approximately equal number of Cubans scattered across the island, imprisoned not as terrorist suspects but as nonviolent political prisoners of the Cuban government. Their only “crime” is that of promoting human rights in a nation in which two generations have grown up without them.
President Obama has a number of difficult decisions to make concerning Cuba. First among them is a decision about what to do with enemy combatants detained at the Guant??¡namo Bay detention facility. But Obama also has important choices regarding American policy toward the Cuban government, which this year commemorates its 50th year in power.
President Bush earned the admiration (and votes) of many Cuban Americans by taking a hard-line stance against the Castro regime. But that’s a stance many Cuba watchers expect Obama to alter if not totally abandon. How Obama addresses the profound abuses of the Castro regime, especially its incarceration of nonviolent democracy advocates, will reveal much about whether he intends to keep his many promises about defending human rights and opposing tyranny.
Few countries are as notorious for suppressing human rights as Cuba. It has been especially brutal in its stifling of free speech. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Cuban government has imprisoned more journalists than any other country except China, whose population is more than 100 times larger than Cuba’s.
The most extreme instance of the Cuban government’s brutal crushing of free speech occurred six years ago in what Cubans call the Black Spring, during which approximately 75 democracy advocates — mostly journalists, librarians and grassroots organizers — were imprisoned for speaking out about democracy and against the ruling Castro regime. Most of those arrested were given 25-year prison sentences.
But the Castro regime refuses even to acknowledge that it is holding political prisoners. In February, Cuban National Assembly Speaker Ricardo Alarcon told reporters, “Somebody has to be jailed first before they can be released, and, in this country, there are no political prisoners.”
All Cubans are, in a sense, political prisoners, because all citizens must rely on the state for almost everything — from health care and education to food, jobs and housing. Ration coupons handed out by the regime will buy enough food for only about half the necessary calories, so most Cubans depend on the black market to obtain essential items. The government doesn’t really mind, though, as such illegal activity gives it a pretext for imprisoning anyone it deems a political threat.
It is important to understand that the Cuban government is as much anti-American as it is communist. When hurricanes struck Cuba last year, the regime refused U.S. offerings of no-strings-attached humanitarian aid. And the brothers Castro have exploited their monopoly of the media to try to convince their subjects not to risk death by fleeing to America.
For example, because many Cubans are of African extraction, the government tries to portray the United States as a nation where violent racism against blacks still abounds. A recent feature article in Granma, the regime’s official mouthpiece, discussed the strong influence that the Ku Klux Klan supposedly retains in America. The photo accompanying the article even featured a burning cross and a Klan member decked out in white sheets.
Leading up to the U.S. presidential election, Cuba’s media outlets constantly declared that a “profound racism” in the U.S. would prevent millions from voting for Barack Obama. Ailing leader Fidel Castro said that it was “a miracle that the Democratic candidate hasn’t suffered the same luck as (assassinated leaders) Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and others who harbored dreams of equality and justice.”
But it is Cuba’s political prisoners who today harbor dreams of equality and justice as they rot in some of the world’s harshest prisons.
Many in the western media have talked about the so-called reforms instituted by Ra??ºl Castro since his ascension to the presidency more than a year ago. These include allowing limited use of cell phones and rental cars (which most Cubans cannot afford) and computers. Ra??ºl Castro even attended the first ever Catholic beatification on Cuban soil (for Fray José Olallo Valdes, a 19th Century member of the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God) last December, an event I (Jordan Allen) attended and that most of the western media portrayed as proof of the regime’s change.
But ask any Cuban about Ra??ºl’s reforms, and he will most likely respond with derisive laughter. Most of the anticipated reforms have not taken place, and those that have are mostly cosmetic. Some Cubans argue that the regime has actually become more repressive — by, for instance, imposing more fines on independent businesses and anyone who participates in the black market — since Ra??ºl took over.
During the presidential campaign, Obama pledged not to lift the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba until it releases all its political prisoners. Obama struck a conciliatory note with Havana by including in the recent spending bill provisions to ease travel and trade restrictions with Cuba. Many Cubans hope Obama instead follows the pledge he made during his inauguration speech:
To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
However the Obama administration handles Cuba, any reaching out must come only after the Cuban regime unclenches its fist by releasing all its political prisoners.