Politicizing Human Rights in

Cuba and Colombia

by Garry M. Leech

Dissident Voice

May 29, 2003


During the past two months, the Bush administration's propaganda machine has successfully distorted reality regarding human rights abuses in the Western Hemisphere by focusing media and public attention on Cuba's dissident crackdown. Not surprisingly, the mainstream media has obediently and unquestioningly echoed the sentiments of State Department officials who have ridiculously labeled the jailing of 75 Cuban dissidents "the most despicable act of political repression in the Americas in a decade." What is surprising is the response of many progressive U.S. intellectuals who, by signing petitions criticizing Cuba's actions without placing them in a regional human rights context, have inadvertently helped the Bush administration distort the regional human rights reality in order to fulfill its own political agenda.


Neither the mainstream media nor the petitions signed by the aforementioned intellectuals have called the Bush administration to task for the obvious hypocrisy of labeling Cuba the region's worst human rights offender at the same time the United States is providing hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid annually to the Colombian Armed Forces, which are closely-allied to right-wing paramilitary death squads truly responsible for the hemisphere's worst human rights abuses.


There is no question that the outrage against the Castro government is justified with regard to the brevity of the closed trials, lack of due process and the excessive sentences of between six and 28 years handed down for what are non-violent offenses. However, one also cannot ignore the fact that this crackdown occurred within the context of countless acts of aggression that have been perpetrated by Washington against the Cuban government for more than 40 years, including the ongoing economic embargo.


The chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, James Cason, has repeatedly met with opposition activists and independent journalists inside the U.S. Interests Section of the mission. He has also traveled throughout Cuba to meet with opposition groups and to hand out thousands of short-wave radios that provide Cubans with access to the U.S. taxpayer-funded, anti-Castro, Miami-based station, Radio Martí. On March 10, the Cuban government requested that Cason stop making provocative statements and organizing meetings with Cuban dissidents. Cason ignored the Cuban government's request and organized another meeting of dissidents at his residence only two days after receiving the letter requesting that he cease such activities.


It is highly unlikely that the Bush administration would tolerate official representatives of a foreign embassy or consulate actively organizing and funding groups in the United States whose stated mission was to overthrow the existing political system. In fact, since 9-11 the Bush administration has justified restricting the civil liberties of many residents, especially those of Middle Eastern descent, for fear that domestic groups funded from abroad might target the United States. Furthermore, on May 13, the Bush administration expelled 14 Cuban diplomats from the United States, including seven diplomats from Cuba's UN mission in New York who were being ordered to leave "for engaging in activities deemed harmful to the United States outside their official capacity."


While such terminology is often diplomatic language for spying, FBI officials have stated that the expulsions were not motivated by any specific espionage activities. A senior FBI official said the expulsion decision was made at "the highest levels" in the White House and the State Department and that "it was not our recommendation to take this action at this time." These statements buttress Cuba's claims that the diplomats were not involved in espionage and that the expulsions were a politically-motivated decision by the Bush administration to further escalate tensions between the two countries.


Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department has defended Cason's travels and meetings with Cuban dissidents by claiming that he is seeking a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba. The Cuban government undoubtedly views Cason's activities in the same light that the Bush administration has portrayed the Cuban diplomats: "engaging in activities deemed harmful" to the nation. Especially when the diplomat in question represents a country that has been seeking to overthrow the Cuban government for more than 40 years.


Regardless to what degree the 75 Cuban dissidents were receiving information and funding from the U.S. government, such activities do not justify the lack of due process evident in their trials and the severity of the sentences handed down by the secret courts. The trials have provided the Bush administration with fresh ammunition with which to attack Cuba's human rights record. However, what the U.S. mainstream media and many leading progressive intellectuals have failed to do is draw attention to the Bush administration's hypocrisy and its politicizing of human rights abuses.


Following the arrests of the dissidents and Cuba's recent re-election to the UN Human Rights Commission, the U.S. ambassador to the UN Economic and Social Council, Sichan Siv, pointedly stated that Washington views "Cuba as the worst violator of human rights in this hemisphere." On April 3, State Department spokesman, Philip T. Reeker, declared, "The Castro regime's actions are the most despicable act of political repression in the Americas in a decade." Meanwhile, there was no official comment from Washington on a UN Human Rights report issued in March noting that last year the U.S.-backed Colombian military's direct involvement in human rights abuses escalated and that "many of these actions were carried out as part of the new [President Alvaro Uribe] government's security policy."


Twenty-eight of the jailed Cuban dissidents were journalists, which, while appalling, pales in comparison to the Colombian government's record regarding the ongoing slaughter of journalists in that nation. During March, the same month as Cuba's crackdown, three Colombian journalists were assassinated. The name of one of them, Luis Eduardo Alfonso, had appeared on a death list issued by the right-wing paramilitary organization, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which is closely-allied to the U.S.-backed Colombian military. Two of the ten journalists on the list have been killed and the other eight have fled the region of Arauca, which happens to be where U.S. Army Special Forces troops are currently operating as part of Washington's global war on terror (see, The Battle for Saravena).


Last year in Colombia, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), "Eight journalists or media assistants were killed; around 60 were kidnapped, threatened or physically attacked; more than 20 were forced to leave their region or the country; and eight attacks or attempted attacks by means of explosives were reported." While the Bush administration has gleefully focused the human rights spotlight on Cuba, it has ignored the dangerous conditions under which journalists in Colombia are forced to work. The responsibility of shedding light on human rights abuses in countries allied with Washington has been left to non-governmental organizations such as the CPJ, which has claimed: "The [Colombian] government's failure to prosecute these crimes perpetuates a climate of impunity that leaves the media wide open to violence and has led many journalists to go into exile." In total, more than 116 journalists have been killed in Colombia during the past 15 years.



There has also been no comment from the Bush White House on recent efforts by the Uribe administration to increase censorship of the media in Colombia as part of its "war on terror." The Colombian president has been pushing a counterterrorism bill through the Colombian Congress that calls for eight to twelve years in prison for anyone who publishes an article considered to be "counterproductive to the fight against terrorism," or that the government deems is "boosting the position or image of the enemy." The offending media outlet could also be shut down.


While it is clearly dangerous to work as a journalist in Colombia, it is virtually suicidal to become a union leader who criticizes the Colombian government and the ongoing imposition of a Washington-backed neoliberal economic agenda. While the Bush administration is eager to point out the Cuban government's repression of opposition members in order to demonize the Castro regime, it is again conspicuously quiet regarding the ongoing massacre of Colombian unionists critical of their government. More than 3,000 labor leaders have been killed in Colombia over the past 15 years without a single culprit being brought to justice. Last year alone, 184 Colombian unionists were killed, more than in the rest of the world combined. According to human rights groups, right-wing paramilitary deaths squads closely-allied with the U.S.-backed Colombian military are responsible for the huge majority of these killings.


In sharp contrast to remarks from the U.S. State Department strongly condemning Cuba for its recent actions, when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met with President Uribe in Bogotá in December 2002 there was no criticism of the Colombian military's escalating human rights abuses and close ties to paramilitary death squads. In fact, to the contrary, Secretary Powell announced that the United States would provide Colombia with $573 million in mostly-military aid for 2003, up from $300 million in 2002. Last week, Amnesty International issued a report criticizing weapons exports by G8 nations in which it called for tighter controls on U.S. arms supplied to human rights abusing countries such as Colombia, which is currently the world's third largest recipient of U.S. military aid behind only Israel and Egypt.


While it is clear that pressure should be placed on the Cuban government regarding its recent crackdown on dissidents, it is ludicrous for the Bush administration to label Cuba's actions "the most despicable act of political repression in the Americas in a decade." It is not surprising that the mainstream media has once again served as the mouthpiece for the administration with regards to obediently demonizing the White House's foreign target of the month. However, it is surprising that so many prominent progressive intellectuals in the United States have signed petitions that condemn Cuba but do not also criticize the Bush administration's strategy of using the crackdown on dissidents to politicize human rights. While we all have a responsibility to condemn human rights abuses such as those recently perpetrated by the Castro regime, it is just as important that we simultaneously reprimand our own government for distorting the region's human rights reality in order to fulfill its political agenda.


Garry M. Leech is author of Killing Peace: Colombia's Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention (INOTA, 2002), and is on the Board of Directors of the Information Network of the Americas (INOTA) in New York. This article first appeared in Colombia Journal. Please visit their website and consider supporting their vitally important work: http://www.colombiajournal.org




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