CubaBrief: Challenges and opportunities for Cuban democrats at the UN General Assembly and Forum 2000

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There is an international crisis that finds both human rights and democracy in retreat around the globe. The roots of this crisis are found both externally, with the rise of communist China as a great power, and an internal crisis of values in established democracies.

On October 17th at the United Nations the 193-member General Assembly, elected Brazil and Venezuela to the region’s two vacant spots. Brazil obtained 153 votes, followed by Venezuela with 105 votes both beating Costa Rica, that obtained only 96 votes. The two countries will each serve three-year terms on the UN Human Rights Council beginning January 1, 2020. Costa Rica has the best human rights records of the three candidates, but did not garner enough votes to get elected.

The Washington Post reported on the consequences of this vote and quoted U.N. director at Human Rights Watch, Louis Charbonneau, who observed that “with the seat, Venezuela will try to undermine scrutiny of its abuses and the abuses of its allies,” and that in “votes on some issues can be close, so we don’t need countries like Venezuela who try to undermine the good work.” This vote is an insult to international human rights standards.

Meanwhile in Cuba, U.S. economic sanctions are impacting the Castro regime and forcing it to open up the economy to obtain more hard currency for the dictatorship. The prices of household appliances and other items have been lowered, but Cubans will have to purchase them in dollars.This is part of an effort to limit US economic leverage. The United States has tightened sanctions over the Cuban dictatorship to push for the Castro regime to end its bad actions in Venezuela. Paradoxically it is forcing the regime to open up to its own population.

Oved Lobel, a policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, outlined the Cuban role in Venezuela in his June 6, 2019 article “What are Russia, Iran and Cuba doing in Venezuela?” in the publication The Strategist.

Amid the continuing political, economic and humanitarian meltdown of Venezuela, an anti-American alliance consisting of Russia, Cuba and Iran is coalescing to counter US economic and diplomatic pressure on embattled President Nicolas Maduro. The anchor of the alliance is Cuba, which colonised Venezuela through its security services when Fidel Castro’s protege Hugo Chavez came to power in 1998. Castro then began shipping tens of thousands of barrels of oil a day back to Cuba, while Venezuela became what is widely considered a ‘mafia state’. He also expanded his relationships with the narco-terrorist insurgencies plaguing the region, most famously FARC and the National Liberation Army in Colombia. Cuba’s security services helped stand up loyalist paramilitary organisations called colectivos to terrorise opponents of the Maduro regime. More recently, Cuba assisted in creating the Special Actions Force, or FAES, which strikes at opposition figures.

Despite Cuba’s role as a bad actor in Venezuela, and the unfolding crisis there, the European Union has pursued an engagement policy with the Castro regime while marganizling the role of the Cuban opposition both at diplomatic gatherings in Cuba and international meetings in Europe.

European civil society has maintained its commitment to Cuban democrats and independent civil society.

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Earlier this week, over two days on October 15th and 16th in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, Forum 2000 gathered to analyze the challenges to a democratic world order that defends human rights. Forum 2000 is a joint initiative of the late Czech President Václav Havel, Japanese philanthropist Yohei Sasakawa, and the late Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel that was founded in 1996.

Over the past 23 years beginning in 1997, Forum 2000 has organized an annual gathering to focus on pressing international issues. This year’s Forum 2000 Conference theme was “Recovering the Promise of 1989” and looked back at the optimism of thirty years ago and the pessimism and challenges of today:

Thirty years ago, the world was full of hope that, finally, democracy, freedom, and a global order based on peace and responsibility would prevail. In the tumultuous year 1989, people rallied against governments with a dismal human rights record and a lack of respect for the rule of law. Protests in Beijing, Berlin, or Prague coincided with ongoing or looming democratic transitions in Chile, Nicaragua, South Africa and elsewhere. Citizens globally asked for more freedom and democracy and hoped for a just society. Western democracies served as a model to which many looked up to. Since then, the spirit of freedom and civic responsibility in new democracies, as well as in the more established ones, has faced many difficult tests and today, we are at perhaps one of liberal democracy’s most demanding moments.

Cuban dissidents were prominently featured during this edition of the Forum 2000 Conference.

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Cuban dissident Rosa María Payá took part in the Opening Panel, “Ambitions of 1989? Ambitions of Today?” at Žofín Palace, Forum Hall together with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman, Mikuláš Minář, Šimon Pánek, Maia Sandu and moderator Jacques Rupnik. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Karman addressed how “bad choices are made between tyranny and terrorism,” and she declared that “we will fight both. Any war against terrorism is also a war against dictatorship. Every dictator is a terrorist and every terrorist is a dictator.”

Rosa María Payá warned of the dangers of ignoring the Castro regime in Latin America, citing her martyred father Oswaldo Payá who said “the cause of freedom is the cause of peace” and no strategy that ignores the authoritarian presence and interference of Castroism in Latin America will be successful in obtaining and maintaining either.”

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Cuban dissident Manuel Cuesta Morúa spoke on the Anniversary Panel, “30 Years of Czech Human Rights Policy Abroad: Achievements and New Challenges” in the Žofín Palace, Forum Hall with speakers Arzu Gebullayeva, Carl Gershman, and Alexandr Vondra.

During the panel discussion Carl Gershman highlighted the criminal nature of the Castro regime and the fact that Cuba’s secret police had murdered Oswaldo Payá in 2012.

Cuban artist Tania Bruguera took part in the panel discussion ” 60 Years of Communism in Cuba Democratic Solidarity” at Žofín Palace in the Conference Hall) along with Wilhelm Hofmeister, Miriam Kornblith, and Danae Vilchez. According to the event description: “Cuba is one of the five remaining modern-day communist countries in the world along with China, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. Its communist regime, established in 1959, survived even the collapse of its one-time supporter, the Soviet Union. Despite the new constitution and the so-called ‘transition of power’ to the new President Miguel Díaz-Canel in 2018, Cuba remains a country ruled by a communist government. What lessons can Cuba learn from the countries that successfully overthrew their communist regimes in 1989? Is there a role for the international community and regional actors in supporting Cuba’s eventual transition to democracy?”

This past week demonstrated both the challenges and opportunities for Cuban democrats. International institutions such as the UN General Assembly are dominated by anti-democratic actors. The election of Venezuela to the UN Human Rights Council adds to the roster of the world’s worst human rights offenders sitting on that body with the objective of neutralizing it. On the other hand Forum 2000 continues its work of bringing together people of good will from around the world to engage in a democratic conversation on the pressing matters of the day. It also serves as a platform for democrats to network and coordinate their efforts.

This is of great importance to counter the coordination and networking of authoritarians and totalitarians to undermine democracies and international human rights standards.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and President of Poland Lech Walesa in the concluding panel of Forum 2000 explained the concept of solidarity. He described it as follows: “If you can’t lift heavy weights, you need to ask somebody for help. The Soviet Union was such a weight. We asked Europe, the United States, and Canada for help and together we got rid of the system. Now we need the same spirit of global solidarity in the world.”

The rest of the panels are available here.