Both the Cuban government and its opponents used International Human Rights Day as a platform pushing for changes on the island. The Foreign Minister claimed that Cuba would sign an international pact on civil rights early in the coming year, while members of the opposition took to the streets calling for the release of all political prisoners. It was unclear whether the protesters who were taken away were arrested or simply dispersed, but the events of the day hinted that some type of change was imminent.
In the week leading up to International Human Rights Day, the government clamped down on its opponents by using its security apparatus to intimidate, detain and deter potential protesters. Several of the main organizers of the demonstration planned for December 10th were detained at some point recently in an attempt to prevent events from taking place. It was in this context that seven members of the Cuban Youth Movement for Democracy were arrested on December 4th while demonstrating for the creation of an autonomous university and that Dr. Darsi Ferrer, a well known dissident, received death threats on December 6th over his possible participation in Human Rights Day events. Actions like this have been frequent in recent years when the government knew that the opposition was planning a major demonstration.
The government surprised many on Monday when the Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque claimed that Cuba would soon be signing the U.N.’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The document was first adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1966, but has remained unsigned by the Cuban government, who frequently claimed that the U.N. was working for their nemesis, the Untied States. In addition, said the Foreign Minister stated that Cuba would open its doors in 2009 to scrutiny by the newly created U.N. Human Rights Council, even though the former U.N. Human Rights Commission’s special rapporteur’s requests to visit the island in the past were refused.
The opposition held a small demonstration in Havana as planned on December 10th, calling for the release of all political prisoners and for greater respect for human rights in Cuba. As in years past, the opposition was outnumbered by government supported counterdemonstrators, who pushed and insulted the dissidents as they attempted to conduct a peaceful demonstration in the Vedado section of the city. At least two Cuban were detained according to witnesses, while at least eight Spaniards and other foreigners were deported from Cuba for participating in the prior days demonstration with the “Ladies in White.” The government’s reaction to these demonstrations would seem to be rather ironic in light of their announcements, but hardly surprising.
Diplomats and human rights activists were less than certain what to make of the days events. One Western diplomat said that the signing of the U.N. rights covenants was a long-awaited “gesture” on Cuba’s part. While another diplomat from Europe stated that “The real problem is still the political prisoners. Plenty of countries have signed both pacts and still violate human rights on a massive scale.” While veteran civil rights activist Elizardo Sanchez said it was a “positive” step, but wondered whether Cuba would ultimately comply with the covenants guidelines and set free some of the 240 Cubans in prison for political reasons.
If Cuba follows through with its promise to sign the U.N.’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights then certain changes would seem to be imminent. These two legally binding protocols, which make up the U.N.’s Bill of Human Rights, will commit Cuba, among other things, to allow for freedom of expression and association, and the right to travel abroad. Both of these changes would be welcomed both internationally and on the island. However, it is unclear whether the regime intends to make such a radical change or is simply attempting to improve its international standing as it tried to move forward under Raul Castro. Only time will tell, but by increasing its level of engagement with the U.N and other international organizations it is opening itself up to greater calls for change than it has in decades.
(Information was used to make this report from the AP Wire Service, BBC and Reuters)