Imperial ‘transition’ And Human Rights
The Focus On Cuba

Amidst the many monstrous human rights abuses in the world, most of them committed by imperial armies, the United Nations has recently chosen to focus on Cuba. At issue has been about 70 Cubans who were arrested and jailed in 2003.

These people (variously called 'dissidents', 'independent journalists', and even labelled 'prisoners of conscience' by Amnesty USA) were charged and convicted of being paid by the US Government to help overthrow the Cuban Government. None were killed or tortured. More than a dozen have now been released. So why the United Nations focus on Cuba?

The processes of the UN's Commission on Human Rights, and its resolutions regarding Cuba, tell us quite a lot about imperial strategy in the current era, and the use of 'human rights' as an instrument to leverage imperial 'transition'. Implicit support from the European Union for the US plans for a 'transition' in Cuba is also instructive.

To understand this game we need to remind ourselves of the shifting rationale for the invasion of Iraq. When links to terrorist atrocities and the various disarmament arguments had failed, the invasion and mass slaughter was transformed into a mission on behalf of 'democracy and human rights'.

The 'transition' of Iraqi society into a supposed model of democracy for the entire, oil-rich Middle East now has at its root three basic elements: a thoroughly compliant Iraqi state; a network of permanent imperial military bases (to be 'invited' by the new Iraqi regime); and an 'open market' economy presided over by the World Bank.

The recent precedents for compliant states (we could say 'puppet governments', but that might be rude) 'inviting' imperial forces to establish permanent military bases are, of course, Panama in 1989 and Afghanistan in 2005. The rationale is always the inability of the compliant state to defend itself.

In the case of Iraq, it is significant that the new World Bank President, Paul Wolfowitz, happens to be one of the chief architects of pre-emptive war, and that the European Union was complicit in his elevation. This is an essential part of the historic compromise between these otherwise competitive economic giants. The EU backs the US project of 'corporate opening' in independent countries, even though European companies might not be first in line for the benefits.

The World Bank has already presided over the abolition of Iraqi social subsidies (especially on petrol) and the licensing of US corporate monopolies in major infrastructure developments. The Iraqi 'transition' is well advanced, but still fragile.

While an invasion of Cuba is uncertain, a similar 'transition' plan for the independent island was spelt out in the May 2004 report of the 'Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba', headed by former Secretary of State Colin Powell. This report recommended increased US funds for opposition groups, called for a 'Truth Commission', and demanded a 'market economy' in Cuba.

The US requires that a 'Free Cuba' join the World Bank, decontrol prices (specifically including petrol), and engage in an "effective privatization program", enforcing new property rights and "free market mechanisms". The US will also "encourage a free Cuba to settle outstanding claims issues as expeditiously as possible". This is a reference to American and Cuban properties nationalised after the revolution from 1959 onwards. Back in the 1960s the US refused the Cuban terms of compensation for these nationalisations. As at 2004 there is a State Department 'Transition Coordinator' for a 'Free Cuba', based in Washington DC.

Ominously, in view of the rationale for the Iraqi invasion, the Bush Administration used its 2004 report to make some wild accusations against Cuba. A White House press release said Cuba had "at least a limited developmental offensive biological weapons research and development effort". There was no evidence to back this 'weapons of mass destruction' claim. This was simply a 'belief' of the White House. The story arises from discredited claims prepared a few years earlier by John Bolton, now US Ambassador to the UN. Former US President Jimmy Carter and CIA operatives looked into and rejected Bolton's claims.

In May 2004 Bush also claimed (without evidence) that Cuba had been "harbouring terrorists". This claim was rapidly overshadowed by outgoing Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso’s action (with US support) to pardon and release four jailed Cuban-American terrorists, including Luis Posada Carriles. They had been jailed for a 2000 attempt on the life of President Fidel Castro, at a summit in Panama. The CIA-trained Posada had been implicated in a long string of terrorist acts, including the bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976, which killed 73 people, and the bombing of Cuban hotels in Havana and Varadero in the late 1990s. In April 2005, after decades of shadowy operations, Posada arrived openly in the US and claimed political asylum, thus posing a public relations dilemma for the Bush Administration's ‘war on terrorism’.

The US has not been able to get support for its more extravagant human rights abuse claims against Cuba at the UN. Its own State Department report acknowledged that Cuba in 2003 had: "no political killings ... no reports of politically motivated disappearances", no reports of religious repression, little discrimination, compulsory and free schooling, a universal health system, substantial artistic freedom, and no reports of torture. However the US has been persistent and ruthless in building the ground work for its 'transition' campaign for Cuba, and 'human rights' condemnations are now central to this.

In 2002 the US managed to push through a mild-sounding compromise resolution in the Human Rights Commission, which “invites the Government of Cuba - whose efforts to give effect to the social rights of the population despite an adverse international environment are to be recognised - to make efforts to achieve similar progress in respect of human, civil and political rights.”

The US was pushing to expand the political space for some small groups of Cubans it had been hosting and funding. Rather pretentiously called ‘civil society’ representatives, these people were given 24-hour access to the US Office of Interests (the equivalent of a Consulate in Havana) by the new US Head of Mission, Robert Cason. They received additional backing from conservative groups in Spain, and from the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). The CANF had also been funding Posada and his associates for their bomb attacks. However the main function of the Havana-based, US-sponsored groups was to assist in the preparation of ‘human rights’ reports, through direct liaison with the US Office of Interests and the Miami based exile groups. Cuban authorities, however, were irritated that Cason’s activities went way beyond the bounds of acceptable diplomatic activity.

In 2003 Ms Christine Chanet was appointed as the personal representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, but her access to Cuba was blocked. The Cuban Government regarded her project as an arm of US policy, and refused to cooperate. Then, after a spate of hijackings [see footnote], which the Government regarded as incited by Cason, Cuban police arrested over 70 of the ‘dissidents’, trying them as mercenaries of a foreign power. Cuban intelligence had infiltrated (and held leading positions in) these small groups. The trials were swift and long prison sentences were handed out. The US reacted strongly, as many of their agents had been rounded up in one fell swoop. Former CIA agent Philip Agee said the US reaction to the 2003 arrests was: "Hey! Those are OUR GUYS the bastards are screwing!"

At this point the US managed to secure European support for a stronger resolution against Cuba at the Human Rights Commission. The EU countries had opposed the US economic blockade against Cuba, and had refused to adopt the more outrageous US claims against the island. However they remained silent over appalling US crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and complied when the US demands over Cuba became stronger. The 2004 UN resolution "deplores the events which occurred last year in Cuba involving verdicts pronounced against certain political dissidents and journalists".

Some of those jailed had been hosted at functions in Europe, particularly through their Spanish sponsors. So there had been a European connection. But two things made the apparently global outrage at the Cuban arrests peculiar.

First, there was virtually no media coverage of the fact that those jailed in 2003 had been charged and convicted of two specific offences to do with collaborating with a foreign power for the overthrow of the Cuban Government. They were referred to as Amnesty USA endorsed ‘prisoners of conscience’.

Second, the campaigning for these Cuban prisoners came to a head at the very time that the Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib torture scandals were sweeping the world. With several hundred people from several countries held by the US army, without charge or trial, with photographic images of torture and reports of the murder of many prisoners the attention of the UN’s main human rights body was instead directed at a few dozen jailed US agents in Havana.

The US draft resolution on Cuba at the Human Rights Commission in 2005 simply seeks a report from Ms Chanet, and commits to ‘further consideration’ of the matter in 2006. However it is important in justifying US plans for a Cuban 'transition'.

Once again, the EU countries are collaborating with the US, while Pakistan has been persuaded to abstain. The manouver is opposed by India, China, Malaysia and Indonesia, and all the South American countries are inclined to oppose or abstain. However the US has got Mexico and some Central American countries to support their new motion. Economic pressure on some small African countries has helped the US gather a slim majority.

The European Union also shows little sign of supporting the Cuban motion at the Human Rights Commission, to have the treatment of prisoners at the US-controlled Guantanamo base investigated. Cuba's draft Human Rights Commission motion "requests" the US to allow "an impartial and independent investigation" into the treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo base, including UN representatives from the groups investigating arbitrary detention, torture, physical and mental health and the independence of judges and lawyers.

The failure of the EU to take an independent position in this affair demonstrates its weakness and lack of moral authority. Given the absence of charges, the US refusal to accept prisoner of war conventions and the evidence of torture, the several hundred Guantanamo prisoners would seem a far more urgent human rights focus than the US agents in Havana.

Cuba is implacable in face of the US manouvers. It "does not recognise any legitimacy in this resolution, nor will it cooperate with the spurious mandate that it establishes". Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque says: "In Cuba we will not allow the establishment of organisations and mercenary parties financed by and at the service of the US Government. We will not allow newspapers and TV networks funded by the US Government to uphold its policies of blockade and lies among us. In Cuba the press, the radio and the TV are owned by the people and serve and will serve their interests."

Indeed, any independent state with self-respect would have to resist such pressures. These consistent 'human rights' manouvers are the opening gambit of openly imperial 'transition' plans; and the human rights consequences of such a transition would be dire. Cuba - with the best health and education standards in Latin America - could become another Haiti.

A genuine human rights focus at the UN might yet be rescued from this power politics; but not through the backing of imperial 'transition' plans.

by Tim Anderson

Footnote: Some persons convicted of a Cuban ferry hijacking were tried and sentenced to death in 2003. Cuba retains the death penalty, and claimed it was necessary in this case as a deterrent to an anticipated wave of hijackings. This issue was not raised by the US in its human rights accusations against Cuba, as the US executes people at a much higher rate than Cuba. However the arrests of the 'dissidents' and the death penalty for the ferry hijackers was often mixed in the popular press, wrongly suggesting that dissidents faced a death sentence. Nevertheless, the Cuban argument that the death penalty is necesssary in a state of near-war, seems wrong and counterproductive. The Cuban Government would gain greater moral authority, in the global propaganda war over human rights, if it eliminated capital punishment.

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