On July 8, the Washington Post lead story (“Cuba to release 52 political prisoners, Catholic Church says”) reported Cuba had released five political prisoners with assurances of forty-seven more to come in the near future. Cuban President Raul Castro said all political prisoners would soon be released. On July 16, another group was freed.
The Post story and its July 9 editorial “Cuba’s marginal gesture” omitted facts readers would need in order to understand the significance of the prisoner release. Both pieces convey the image of a “political prisoner” who is dedicated to expressing unwelcome views–perhaps a poet, or a whistleblower who has uncovered corruption. But these prisoners were in jail for committing crimes that would have placed them behind bars if they were done in the United States including working for a foreign government without registering, and committing violence.
For example, Orlando Zapata, the hunger striker who died in March, was convicted of aggravated assault–cutting off a man’s ear with a machete because the man had intervened to stop a street brawl. He developed his reputation as a “dissident” while serving his sentence in prison.
When James Cason arrived in Cuba in 2003 to head the U.S. diplomatic mission, the State Department reportedly instructed him to adopt the “ugly American” role; to interfere blatantly in Cuba’s domestic affairs. Roger Noriega, then an Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, recently explained on a Miami radio talk show that the motive was to induce Cuba to expel him, thus providing the Bush Administration with a pretext to end formal contacts with the island. To achieve that goal, Cason openly organized and paid Cuban “dissidents.” Rather than expel the puppeteer, however, Cuba arrested the puppets Cason had used as human instruments for his machinations. (July 1, Que Pasa, Miami, referring to May 20 interview on WQBA Miami [Univision], “Lo que otros no dicen”)
The editorial also missed the fact that the United States holds more political prisoners in Cuba (Guantanamo Base) than the Cuban government does. Of the 181 remaining Guantanamo detainees, an Obama Task Force recommended 48 should be released since they have been cleared of criminal acts. Most of these people were kidnapped. No warrants were issued for their arrests. (July 9, Financial Times)
The U.S. government justified such “arrests”, post 9/11, because Americans felt under attack from terrorists. We should thus be able to empathize with Cubans who at least issued arrest warrants for people who secretly received money from Cuba’s avowed enemy. Declassified CIA documents attest to thousands of CIA-backed terrorist raids against Cuba since the early 1960s. More Cubans died in these attacks than perished in the 9/11 horrors. Cuba also suffered substantial property damage from CIA-backed sabotage of factories and fields.
As for civil liberties, Cuba at least held formal trials for the dissidents and found them guilty of organizing at the behest of U.S. officials as well as discussing future actions and accepting money, goods or services from U.S. diplomats. They were not charged for having opposing ideas–although the expression of opposition ideas may have motivated the arrests. The Post editorial, like a similar sermon in the Los Angeles Times (July 10), seems to have made its judgment by using a double standard.
The U.S. media has also portrayed Ghandi-like attributes of Guillermo Fariñas, the other faster of conscience, which might have been tempered by the fact of his 1995 arrest for beating the female director of a hospital. In 2002, he attacked another woman who then needed surgery.
Zapata and Fariñas may qualify as legitimate political oppositionists, but would the editorial have talked of George Jackson and other former Black Panthers without mentioning their criminal records?
Nowhere do the double standards applied to Cuba shine more dramatically than in the issue of terrorism. Currently, the United States harbors individuals accused of horrific terrorist acts–sabotage of a Cuban commercial airliner killing 73 and a spate of bombings of Cuban tourist spots killing an Italian and wounding many. Instead of indicting or extraditing Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch for international terrorism–CIA and FBI cables point to their role in sabotaging the airliner over Barbados in 1976, killing all aboard–Washington has protected them. The Justice Department has charged Posada with immigration fraud, a minor charge, and has allowed the case to drag on for six years.
Double standards and irony abound. Spain and the United States lecture Cuba on freedom after holding the island as a formal and informal economic colony respectively for 450 years. Somehow, both seem to claim they have a perennial right to dictate Cuban government behavior.
Saul Landau is Professor Emeritus at California State University, Pomona, member of the Canadian Dimension collective and a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.
Nelson P Valdes is Professor Emeritus, Sociology Department, at the University of New Mexico.