CubaBrief: Castro dictatorship rebrands itself as Cuban civic opposition calls on Europe to put human rights and democracy first

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The last CubaBrief addressed the crisis in Europe and how it is reflected in the 2016 abandonment of the European Common Position on Cuba. This one focuses on recommendations to the European Union by Cuban civil society and what the Castro regime has been doing to rebrand itself.

The Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement ( PDCA ) between the EU and Cuba, negotiated between 2014 and 2016 without civil society input would give the Castro regime even more trade and foreign aid benefits than it is already enjoying with Europe. The EU and Cuba signed the agreement in 2016, but all individual member states need to ratify it before it comes into force. Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden have not ratified the agreement due to their human rights concerns.

Former CFC program officer, Daniel Pedreira explained in his October 4th Op-Ed, “New Cuban leadership reflects a rebranding of Castro dictatorship” that “leadership changes in Cuba will only be superficial and tactical to achieve the dictatorship’s survival.” Daniel also observed that “Raúl Castro, as first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, remains the ultimate arbiter and decision maker in Cuban politics.” Considering that the human rights situation in Cuba has worsened and the dictatorship is doing everything to perpetuate itself in power the recommendations of civil society are for accountability and linkage to concrete democratic and human rights reforms.

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In June 2019, 391 Cuban human rights defenders wrote an open letter to the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs supporting Sweden’s decision not to ratify the PDCA agreement citing that the human rights situation in Cuba has worsened since November 2016. One of the signers of the letter, lawyer and freelance journalist, Roberto de Jesús Quiñones Haces is currently jailed and recognized by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience. With regards to the worsening human rights situation the letter states.

“Since 2016, the behavior of the Cuban government regarding human rights has only worsened. Arbitrary detentions; violence against civil society actors, essentially within arts and culture which includes gender-based violence against civically proactive citizens; physical and psychological torture; punishment of entrepreneurs within the private sector and against workers who express social concerns, have become the daily practice of state officials at all levels and in all areas.”

Below is the document presented by Rosa María Payá and promoters of Cuba Decide with their recommendations regarding the EU policy towards Cuba.

This is followed by Daniel Pedreira’s Op-Ed on the superficial changes of the Castro dictatorship.

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Proposal to the European Union about its policy towards Cuba

In December 2016, the EU Council signed the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement, PDCA, with the Cuban government. The European Parliament approved said agreement in July 2017. And many member states have ratified the agreement, without any criticism of the Cuban totalitarian political system nor the repressive behavior of the government.

However, in November 2018 the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the human rights violations committed by the Cuban government, and asking “the VP / AR Federica Mogherini to recognize the existence of a political opposition to the Cuban government, and to support its inclusion in the political dialogue between the EU and Cuba; to remind European institutions that the civil society and the winners of the Sakharov Prize are key democratization actors for Cuba, so that their voice must be heard and taken into account in the context of bilateral relations; it asks, in this respect, that all representatives of the member states, during their visits, address the issues of concern regarding human rights with the Cuban authorities, and that they meet with the winners of the Sakharov Prize when they visit Cuba, in order to guarantee the internal and external coherence of the EU policy on human rights. 

Before and after the adoption of said resolution, the VP / AR Federica Mogherini and the negotiators appointed by her, failed to recognize and include the Cuban opposition and civil society not controlled by the Cuban government in their framework of political dialogue. Even more serious, Mrs. Mogherini’s visits and statements about Cuba have served the dictatorship to cover up the absence of civil, political, economic and cultural rights in the country. This concession to the Cuban government is evident in the 2016 EEAS Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy in the World, which describes the government regime on the Island with the absurdity that: “Cuba is a one-party democracy, with elections held at the municipal, provincial and national levels,” a statement publicly subscribed by Mrs. Mogherini in one of her visits to the Island. 

This position of the EEAS, together with the fact that European governments have abandoned their previous position to condemn human rights violations, and to demand democratic reforms in Cuba while keeping their embassies on the Island open to the opposition and the independent civil society, as did the EU Common Position on Cuba in 1996, is now being used by the Cuban government to try to legitimize its actions.

Said actions are as detrimental as:

– The illegitimate transition that led Mr. Díaz-Canel to the position of head of state in April 2018, through the implementation of a process with continuing conditions that prevented the genuine political participation of citizens. The selection and election of the delegates to the National Assembly and the Provincial Assemblies did not meet the minimum requirements needed for a free, fair and transparent process, and it was established that General Raúl Castro would lead the “decisions of greater importance for the present and the future of the nation.”

– A fraudulent constitutional referendum took place in February 2019, which did not comply with the due international guarantees and standards for a free, fair and transparent process, and which exposed the governmental violence against citizens who campaigned against the approval of the new constitution.

– The imposition of a constitution that suffered from the lack of an adequate national discussion, and that it guarantees that the Communist Party retains its power in perpetuity, it strengthens the centralized state property and a controlled economy, and it declares that the single political party system is “irrevocable” in Article 4, while Article 229 declares that current and upcoming generations are forbidden from altering the irreversibility of socialism and the established political and social system;

– The imposition of a new Electoral Law designed to prevent the free expression of the sovereign will of Cuban citizens, as well as to prevent their effective participation in elections. Cuban government authorities, including the electoral ones, continue to act coercively and arbitrarily, by systematically violating the civil and political rights of the Cuban people, especially the peaceful pro-democracy work of members of independent civil society and the political prisoners.

– The increasing police violence and political persecution against civil society and the citizenry, exemplified by the dozens of searches carried out in  2019 by military personnel with assault rifles  in the family residences of UNPACU members and promoters of Cuba Decide; also the ongoing police violence against the demonstrations of the Ladies in White, opposition members, and LGTBI activists.

– The forced expatriation of several activists who were arbitrarily forced by state agents, under death threats, to leave the country, as happened in February 2019, when Eliecer Góngora, a member of UNPACU and promoter of Cuba Decide, suffered his violent expulsion to Guyana, after being arrested.

– Thousands of arbitrary arrests and thousands of those convicted of “pre-criminal dangerousness”, together with the imprisonment of civil activists, religious leaders, journalists, and human rights defenders, a tendency which has increased the number of documented political prisoners of conscience to 130 in July 2019.

– The interference of the Cuban regime in the internal affairs of several Latin American countries, as evidenced by the presence of Cuban intelligence personnel in Venezuelan military units, and the Cuban spy discovered while conducting illegal monitoring at the Paloquemao military air base, in Colombia.

Since December 2016 until today, it is not public that any of the aforementioned events had even been addressed in the talks between the EU and Cuba, while in several aspects the living conditions and the human rights situation in Cuba have worsened.

It is time for the Commission and its foreign policy branch, the EEAS, to declare which reforms should be implemented in Cuba, so that the Cuban government become respectful of the principles of human rights and democracy established by the PDCA. The main difficulty of the agreement is that it does not specify that democracy and respect for human rights are the objectives to be achieved through cooperation and political dialogue, and instead it only describes them as principles on which the agreement is based. This is a big step back in European foreign policy towards the Island, since it makes it difficult to evaluate the results of the agreement, and the parties involved have so far avoided to explain what will change over the next years. Therefore, it becomes impossible to determine whether or not the Cuban government is complying with the agreement. Therefore, it is urgent that conditions be established for the immediate implementation of said agreement or, otherwise, to suspend its implementation.

 By using the ratification process, member states can highlight this problem and ask the EU to clarify what changes are expected. This is imperative now, when the repression of the Cuban government, not elected by its citizens, has increased, and when the participation of the Cuban intelligence forces in the collapse of Venezuelan democracy is well documented, and it has been denounced by the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS).

Considering all of the above, it is vital that the newly elected European Parliament, the new Commission of the European Union, the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and the member states of the European Union, do not continue with the implementation of the agreement unless:

 1. Explain what concrete reforms the EU calls for in the dialogue on human rights with the Cuban government, and assess how they are making progress. The reforms must at least include the:

  • Release of all political prisoners and the end of all harassment of State Security against Cuban human rights defenders and citizens.

  • Recognition of the right of Cuban citizens to change the political system of their country through the exercise of free voting, as well as that to “determine their own political, economic, social and cultural system”, as established in the Vienna Declaration, adopted by the Cuban government and the member states of the European Union in 1993.

  • Carry out a binding plebiscite on the Island about the change of the political system, to allow the participation of the Cuban people in free, fair and multiparty elections.

  • Legal reforms to guarantee freedom of the press, association and demonstration.

  • Ratification of ICCPR and ICESCR.

 2. Publicly acknowledge that the current National Assembly and all the elected officials of the executive branch in Cuba are positions that are held illegitimately, because the electoral process did not meet the minimum guarantees required and, therefore, the Cuban government should submit to the popular will and launch political reforms that lead to free, fair and plural elections.

3. Clarify that the EU contribution to the political dialogue and cooperation with the Cuban government should be specific in its language and on the implementation of the desired laws and reforms. If the Cuban government does not initiate reforms in 6 months, the EU must leave the PDCA, since the Cuban government would be violating the basic principles of democracy and human rights established in the very agreement.

Cooperate with the independent Cuban press and civil society, as in any other country: that is, by inviting members of civil society to formal discussions on the implementation of the referred agreement, by contributing to the financing of civil society organizations, by inviting independent journalists to press conferences, and by publicly denouncing human rights violations for political reasons. The EEAS should also make it clear that there will be no financial contributions for official Cuban organizations or state agencies, as long as the Cuban government does not publicly support the reforms mentioned above, which are necessary for democratization.

Rosa María Payá and promoters of Cuba Decide

UPI ,October 4, 2019

New Cuban leadership reflects a rebranding of Castro dictatorship

By Daniel I. Pedreira

Oct. 4 (UPI) — In a few days, the Cuban government will implement significant changes to its political system that, instead of marking the end of its 60-year dictatorship, can serve as a much needed lifeline. These changes are the result of the approval of a new Constitution in February of 2019.

On Thursday, the unicameral and single-party National Assembly of People’s Power, which serves as the country’s legislature, will convene in an Extraordinary Session to select the country’s president, vice president and members of the Council of State. This new system differs from the current system, in place since the imposition of Cuba’s 1976 Constitution, under which the official titles of Cuba’s head of state and government was president of the Council of State and of Ministers. This position was held by Fidel Castro (1976-2008) and Raúl Castro (2011-18). Since 2018, this post has been held by Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermudez, whose title was changed earlier this year to that of president of the republic.

Cuba’s seemingly new political model is really not that new. Upon coming to power in 1959, Fidel Castro set up a semi-presidential dictatorship, under which he held firm control of the government as prime minister while placing nominal loyalists as figurehead presidents (Manuel Urrutia Lleó in 1959 and Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado from 1959 until 1976). Under the new Constitution, the president will appoint a prime minister, essentially dividing the positions of head of state and head of government.

The Cuban dictatorship’s eagerness to change its political system reflects its need for survival. To the outside world, the regime hopes that these cosmetic changes can represent its political will to rejoin the society of nations. Domestically, the regime has increased repression in recent months and has cemented a military oligarchy over the Cuban economy. The result is a rebranding of the Western Hemisphere’s longest dictatorship from one run by olive green-clad barbudos (bearded men) to one led by generals in guayaberas.

Cuba’s leadership change offers two likely scenarios:

Scenario 1: Díaz-Canel remains as president (or is replaced by another technocrat), and a member of the Castro dynasty is appointed prime minister. The likeliest Castro to inherit the family’s dynastic control is Alejandro Castro Espín. The only son of Raúl Castro, Castro Espín holds the rank of colonel in Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior, in charge of repression against the island’s opposition. Castro Espín accompanied his father during his meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama in Panama and at the United Nations. It was later revealed that he led the Cuban side of the secret talks with the United States that led to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the countries.

Scenario 2: The reverse of Scenario 1, this possibility places a Castro (like Castro Espín) as the appointed president, with a technocrat appointed as prime minister.

The scenario that will take place depends on which position ultimately holds most of the power. The president is defined as the head of state, but it has not been stipulated if the prime minister will serve as head of government, in which case the latter would hold most of the power. The scenario that will develop also depends on whether the Cuban dictatorship will stick to what it has codified into the Constitution, a feat that has seldom been implemented in its entirety.

Another question that arises regarding the future composition of Cuba’s leadership is the extent to which demographic, gender and racial diversity will factor into the appointments. Since 1959, Cuba’s leadership has been dominated by older white men, largely due to the composition of most of the Cuban revolution’s top generals and officials. However, over time, Cuba’s leaders have been ill-equipped to handle calls for more diversity in its ranks.

In recent decades, Cuba’s younger residents, women and Afro-Cubans have sought greater representation in the government. In the current 605-member legislature (from where Cuba’s leaders are selected), the average age of the delegates is 49, while 53.2 percent of them are women. While the numbers favor the selection of younger delegates, women and Afro-Cubans as future leaders, age and race discrimination, as well as a long tradition of machismo, make appointments of members from these groups less likely.

Leadership changes in Cuba will only be superficial and tactical to achieve the dictatorship’s survival. Only a truly democratic political system based on justice and the rule of law that allows for and fosters the establishment of political parties, free, fair and competitive elections and constitutional guarantees of civil, political and economic rights will ensure real change. It is important to mention that Raúl Castro, as first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, remains the ultimate arbiter and decision maker in Cuban politics. Therefore, whether Cuba has a president, a prime minister or a hybrid regime will only serve to extend its repressive dictatorship.

Daniel I. Pedreira is an author and Ph.D. student in political science at Florida International University.