Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque announced at a Feb. 28 press conference at UN headquarters in New York that he had just signed two human rights accords originally introduced in the world body in 1976. Opponents of Cuba’s revolutionary government have long criticized Cuba’s reluctance to sign the treaties until now.

James McKinley, writing in The New York Times, raised the possibility that Cuba’s action signified a loosening of restraints under the presidency of Raul Castro. Yet the government’s intention to sign the agreements had been announced on Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, 2007.

Perez Roque said the change of course was inspired by the United Nations’ decision in 2006 to replace its widely criticized Commission on Human Rights with a refurbished Human Rights Council. He said the former agency had unfairly subjected Cuba to U.S. “pressure and blackmail.”

Under the new circumstances, Cuba has agreed to allow the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights to visit Cuba for monitoring purposes, with the first visit expected in 2009. Last June, the UN Human Rights Council dropped Cuba from a special list of countries subject to mandated inspections, which Cuba had refused.

Perez Roque assured reporters that Cuba signed both treaties — the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — as a “sovereign decision.” He pointed out that “Cuba has never and will never act under any pressures.”

He added that “it was the Revolution that made it possible for the Cuban people to enjoy those rights included” under the pacts.

The New York Times recalled objections to the treaties expressed by President Fidel Castro in 2001 that mandates for independent labor unions invite manipulation by imperialists and that provisions on educational rights may open the door to privatization.

Perez Roque pointed out that in Cuba “the most serious obstacle to the enjoyment of rights enunciated in those agreements” stems from “the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States and its policy of hostility and aggression against Cuba.”

In New York the Cuban foreign minister met with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, General Assembly president Srgjan Kerim, and the Coordination Bureau of the Movement of Non-Aligned Nations. Cuba currently serves as president of that organization.

The next day in Geneva, Perez Roque met with Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, other UN officials, and representatives of the Movement of Non-Allied Nations to plan the group’s next gathering in Iran. He addressed the UN Human Rights Council on March 3.