Cuba, United States “respectfully” chat about human rights

On Mar. 31, Cuban and U.S. representatives met in Washington D.C. on the subject of human rights problems in both countries, as part of ongoing discussions to follow up the joint declaration in December by Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Raul Castro of Cuba that normalization of relations was on the agenda.

The Cuban delegation was led by Pedro Luis Pedroso, general subdirector of the Cuban Foreign Ministry for Multilateral Affairs and International Law.  The U.S. delegation, in turn, was headed by Tom Malinowski, head of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.  

The United States has criticized Cuba on this issue for many years, often on the basis of shaky information, so some might have been surprised when the Cuban side readily agreed to discuss it, with the proviso that human rights in the United States should also be on the agenda also. But the Cubans knew what they were doing when they agreed to this exchange.

For a year, the United States has been shaken by massive protests against violations of the people’s rights by police officers.   In the vast majority of the cases that provoked public protests, the people who were killed, injured, falsely accused and falsely imprisoned were African American, Latino, and Native American young men. 

As the delegates of the two nations were meeting in Washington, information came out about new cases of African American men who were falsely accused of crimes and imprisoned for decades.  In many such cases, it turns out that the evidence presented at trial by the prosecutor was falsified, or, more frequently, that evidence which would have supported the innocence of the accused was deliberately suppressed by the prosecution in flagrant violation of the law.  For police to plant evidence on persons accused of crimes – or shot dead by police officers themselves-is not unknown either.

It is a rare occurrence indeed when any police officer or prosecutor is called to account for these actions, which almost certainly have caused innocent people to be executed.  As if to emphasize this point, the week before the Cuban and U.S. delegates sat down to discuss human rights, three African American men were found to have been falsely convicted of murder on testimony that appears to have been falsified by prosecutors by the usual method of illegally concealing exculpatory evidence from the defense. In the press, also, was discussion about at least one person who was executed in Texas on the basis of false evidence.  

The death penalty is still on the books in Cuba, but nobody has been executed there, even for violent crimes, since 2003.  In that span of time more than 600 persons have been executed in the United States, by either state or federal authorities. That figure does not include the scores of people shot, beaten, suffocated or tased to death by police in the United States.

The Cubans also insist on including in the category of human rights the right to a job, a right to health care, education, housing and a right to live in “modest dignity.”  The United States refuses to recognize such things as “human rights.”  However, Cubans point out that dying from malnutrition or preventable diseases does permit anyone to exercise any rights at all, and illiterate people are severely constrained in exercising any kind of political rights. Cuba has received wide praise from the international community for its work on literacy, public health and other essential things-work that has been carried out not only in Cuba itself but in scores of poor countries.

The United States has raised the issue of supposed maltreatment of “political prisoners” in Cuba.  The Cubans simply need to say the word “Guantanamo” to put that in perspective. 

In short, it is very likely that after what are supposed to be ongoing conversations on human rights wind up (Tuesday’s meeting was just to set the agenda), Cuba will not look so bad and the United States will not look good at all.

However, both the U.S. and Cuban delegations described Tuesday’s conversations as “respectful” and “professional.”

Photo: Protest against police bruatality at Minnesota’s Mall of the Americas. Cuba insists that human rights abuses in the U.S. also be on the table in talks on human rights with the U.S.  |  AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.