CubaBrief: International Human Rights Day 2019

International Human Rights Day 2019 was marked in Cuba by dissidents being told by the political police that they could not leave their homes. Under the Castro regime December 10th has been a day of repression, arrests, and mobs denouncing human rights.

However, this does not reflect the totality of Cuba’s human rights legacy.

Beginning in 1945 Cuba took part in lobbying for and participating in the drafting of the declaration and submitted nine proposals of which five made it into the final document. The first meetings of the General Assembly and the Security Council took place in London starting on January 10, 1946.

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Cuban Ambassador Willy De Blanc in December 1945 invited former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to lunch at the Cuban Embassy in London with other Cuban diplomats (including delegates to the U.N. Preparatory Commission Dr. Guy Pérez-Cisneros y Bonnel and Cuban jurist Dr. Ernesto Dihigo y López Trigo) where they requested his assistance in the creation of a human rights commission for the United Nations. Churchill recommended that the Cubans lobby Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, and they followed his advice. Eventually the former First Lady was selected as chairwoman to the Human Rights Commission.

Cuba, Panama, and Chile were the first three countries to submit full drafts of human rights charters to the Commission. The Cuban draft contained references to rights to education, food, and health care, and other social security. Latin American delegations, especially Mexico, Cuba, and Chile inserted language about the right to justice into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in what would become Article 8.

Cuban delegate Guy Pérez-Cisneros in his speech on December 10, 1948 proposing to vote on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights before the third General Assembly of the United Nations in addition to highlighting the importance of the Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and how it inspired the Third Committee’s work on this document also addressed the importance of the rule of law:

My delegation had the honor of inspiring the final text, which finds it essential that the rights of man be protected by the rule of law, so that man will not be compelled to exercise the extreme recourse of rebellion against tyranny and oppression.

The Cuban delegate also celebrated that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights condemned racism and sexism.

“My country and my people are highly satisfied to see that the odious racial discrimination and the unfair differences between men and women have been condemned forever.”

This democratic Cuba was overthrown on March 10, 1952 by a military coup led by Fulgencio Batista and hopes of a democratic restoration were dashed by the rise to power of the Castro brothers on January 1, 1959 who established a six decade long dictatorship.

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Guy Pérez-Cisneros died suddenly in 1953 trying to establish a Christian Democrat Party in Cuba in the early years of the Batista regime.

Ernesto Dihigo, like Pérez-Cisneros, left the diplomatic corps following the 1952 coup, but returned in 1959 as Cuba’s Ambassador to the United States in January of 1959 but retired in 1960. No longer a diplomat or a college professor, he dedicated the next forty years of his life to private study focused on philology. He left Cuba, with his wife Caridad Larrondo in 1989 and died in Miami in 1991.

Elena Inés Mederos y Cabañas de González, born in 1900, she had been a suffragette and a co-founder of the National Feminist Alliance in 1924. She was appointed Minister of Social Work in Cuba in 1959 and served for five months of Castro’s revolutionary government. Realizing that the new regime was becoming a dictatorship she resigned. In 1961 she went into exile. She was also a founding vice president of the Association of Cuban-American Women.

Cuba’s last democratic president, Carlos Prio Socarras, returned to Cuba in 1959 hoping there would be a democratic restoration. Two years later, in 1961, he was back in exile plotting the overthrow of the Castro regime. Regretting that he had supported Castro’s overthrow of Fulgencio Batista, and apparently suffering economic reversals he committed suicide on April 5, 1977.

This Cuban tradition of defending human rights and democracy did not end with the death of Carlos Prio, but it was now maintained in resistance to the Castro dictatorship. On January 28, 1976 Dr. Ricardo Bofill, a former philosophy tutor at the University of Havana, together with Martha Frayde at her home in Havana founded the Cuban Committee for Human Rights. Prior to the Revolution Martha had been a licensed gynecologist who had studied abroad. She was active in the Orthodox Party and joined the underground resistance during the Batista dictatorship.

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During the early years of the Castro regime Martha Frayde was given a diplomatic posting. However, when she saw that the Castro regime was heading in a totalitarian direction, she resigned the post in 1965, and wanted to leave Cuba, but the dictatorship did not permit it. In 1976 she was accused of “counterrevolutionary conspiracy” and sentenced to 29 years in prison, but the international outrage following the military show trial led to her being exiled to Spain in 1979.

Over the next 34 years Matha Frayde represented the Cuban Committee for Human Rights in Spain. Ambassador Frayde never backed down from her non-violent resistance: “The Cubans inside are the ones who have to say and decide and are those who, in short, have to achieve change and count on Cubans from the exile for the reconstruction.”

Ricardo Bofill spent twelve years in a Cuban prison for his defense of human rights. Emerging from prison he continued his work in Cuba until 1988 when he left the island and continued the work of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights in Miami. Dr. Bofill in the 1987 documentary “Nobody Listened” stated:

“I can’t understand the hatred towards me. Because, really in the only field I’ve done battle, is the field of ideas. In this field I’ve had no response just prison and the police. And I don’t know why because the revolution controls all mass media. They have editorials, journalists, even many writers in the world. I don’t know why the response, time and again, has been jail. The response should come in the field I fight in, with ideas. I was arrested again in 1983. On that occasion, I was sentenced to 17 years in jail accused of activities in the Cuban Committee for Human Rights and the last period of prison began. For reasons of health and others I know not of in 1985 I was placed in the status I’m now in which is “conditional liberty with restriction of movement.”

The mission of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights is for the Cuban government to comply with the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that Cuba had signed in 1948.

This human rights tradition had a separate branch that emerged parallel to the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, but in the Cuban exile.

Together with activist and political scientist Frank Calzón, Elena Mederos founded Of Human Rights in 1976 with the same objective as the Cuban Committee for Human Rights: to defend, by nonviolent and legal means, persecuted individuals, dissidents and political prisoners in Cuba. She passed away in 1981.Frank Calzon would go on to be Executive Director of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) in the early 1980s . Mr. Calzon left CANF and became the Washington DC representative of Freedom House and in 1997 he founded the Center for a Free Cuba.

Sadly, Dr. Ricardo Bofill passed away in Miami on July 12, 2019, but his legacy lives on in Cuba in the Cuban democratic resistance to the Castro regime today. However, today on December 10, 2019 it is important to remember the Cuban Republic’s high point in 1948 when Cuban diplomats of a democratic Cuba achieved the drafting and passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is also a humbling experience to reflect on this legacy and how the Center for a Free Cuba is linked to such an important human rights icon as Elena Mederos.

Maintaining this tradition, the Center for a Free Cuba responded on December 2, 2019 to an article in the Tampa Bay Times published on November 30, 2019 that ignored history and context to support the rounding up of HIV positive individuals in Cuba over a decade into detention centers. Below is the Center’s response.

Tampa Bay Times, December 2, 2019

Gay rights and Cuba’s bad record

Cuban HIV response saved lives | Column, Nov. 30

This column omits both Fidel Castro’s persecution of gay people over decades and Cuba’s faking of epidemic statistics. In 1964 Fidel and Raul Castro rounded up gay people and sent them to Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), forced labor camps for those suspected of “improper conduct.” Cubans with effeminate mannerisms, what Castro called “extravagant behavior,” were interned.

The 1986-1997 quarantine of HIV-positive Cubans must be considered in this context. Furthermore, claims that AIDS rates are lower in Cuba should be met with skepticism when considering the dictatorship’s failure to accurately report outbreaks.

In 1997 when dengue broke out, Castro tried to cover it up. When a doctor spoke out, he was locked up, sentenced to 8 years in prison. Amnesty International recognized Dr. Desi Mendoza as a prisoner of conscience, and he was released from prison in 1998 under condition he leave Cuba. Castro eventually recognized that there had been a dengue epidemic.

A 2012 cholera outbreak demonstrated how the Cuban public health system operates. News of the outbreak broke on June 29, 2012, thanks to reporting by journalist Calixto Martinez. He too was jailed.

Thousands of Zika virus cases went unreported in 2017, according to an analysis of data on travelers to Cuba, which said “veiling them may have led to many other cases that year.” According to Avert, an NGO that provides information on HIV worldwide, “nearly 90 percent of new infections in the Caribbean in 2017 occurred in four countries — Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica.”

Worse yet, prisoner of conscience Ariel Ruiz Urquiola accused the Cuban government last week of inoculating him with HIV while in its custody in 2018. Castro-ism’s track record of repressing gay people, faking health statistics and covering up epidemics is nothing to celebrate.

John Suarez, Falls Church, Va.

The writer is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.