Human-Rights Record Catches up with Cuba

A major consequence of the ongoing world revolution could be observed with special clarity last week when the United Nations Commission on Human Rights met to consider charges of human-rights abuses by the Cuban government.

Year by year, step by step, the U.S. government, the Cuban exile community and various human-rights and pro-democracy activists have pushed a foot-dragging commission toward serious consideration of rights abuses by the Havana government. Yet, for nearly a decade, few countries were willing to take on Cuba because its membership in the Soviet bloc, leadership of the non-aligned movement and participation in the Latin American group gave it protection and power in the U.N. system.


The end of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union changed all of that. Without Soviet leadership, the entire bloc system weakened. The number of governments ready to help Fidel Castro's prisons avoid scrutiny diminished. Leaders of the new Eastern European democracies -- who had themselves suffered in Communist jails -- were profoundly suspicious of one-party dictatorships on the Cuban model.

Testimony of Communist practices strengthened the will of Western European governments to confront human-rights violations by the remaining Communist regimes. The proliferation democracy in Latin America and the preference for standing ** with other democracies eroded Latin solidarity with Cuba. As a result, pressure on the Castro regime accelerated.


At first, Cuba's human-rights situation was not even discussed by the commission based in Geneva. Then it was discussed and inscribed on the agenda. A breakthrough finally came last March when the commission requested that the U.N. secretary general appoint a special representative to report on Cuba's fulfillment of its obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements to which it is a signatory.

That representative, Rafael Rivas Posada of Colombia, entered his job expecting cooperation from the Havana government and was prepared to give it the benefit of a doubt where possible. But Mr. Rivas Posada reported in late January that the government of Cuba had refused all cooperation, denied him direct contact with Cubans inside Cuba and forced him to rely largely on information supplied by Cubans living outside Cuba and by such groups such as the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, which is active in Havana, Miami, New York and Geneva.

His final report is devastating. More clearly than ever before, an official document of the United Nations has exposed Fidel Castro's gulags. The report specifies more than 100 cases of serious violations of the rights to life, to personal security, to enter and leave the country, to be free from unlawful or arbitrary detentions, to religious freedom, freedom of expression and information, and freedom of association.

It documents Jehovah's Witnesses who were locked in psychiatric hospitals and force-fed psychotropic drugs and writers sentenced to 14 years for possessing "enemy propaganda."

There is the dreadful case of Maria Elena Cruz Varela, a writer who was expelled from the official writers' union, dragged by the hair from her home, tried and sentenced to two years in prison -- all for the crime of signing a petition that called for direct legislative elections and amnesty for prisoners of conscience.

It is a grim account of a police state that uses unrestrained violence to maintain unlimited power.

Faced with the report and full exposure of his various gulags, Fidel Castro's international support finally collapsed last week. The Human Rights Commission voted 23 to 8 in favor of a resolution that keeps Cuba on the agenda, under scrutiny and under the watchful eye of another special representative to be appointed by the new secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Only Iraq, Iran, Syria, China and a few other hard-core dictatorships infamous for their own human-rights violations voted with Cuba.

The event was lent a special poignance by the presence in Geneva of scores of Cuban dissidents and former prisoners who had suffered for many years in Mr. Castro's prisons. Symbolizing the end of an era, Russia's ambassador in Geneva announced shortly before the vote that "it is now time to pay back old debts," and hosted a party in honor of these Cuban dissidents.


At last, the dynamic of international politics, driven by the ongoing world revolution, is pushing member states to take human rights seriously and to concern themselves with persons as well as nations.

This dynamic is also affecting U.S. policy. Word filtered out of the State Department last Wednesday that, despite a substantial reluctance by the Bush administration, the United States will join the European Community and other democracies in co-sponsoring a resolution to put human-rights violations in Tibet by the government of China on the U.N. commission's agenda.

Perhaps the people of Tibet will, at last, receive a modicum of international solidarity and support as the world revolution continues.

Jeane Kirkpatrick, a former ambassador to the U.N., writes a syndicated column.