Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images
A new report by a human rights organization says the current Cuban regime, headed by President Raul Castro, uses an "Orwellian" law to keep dissidents locked up.
A new report by a human rights organization says the current Cuban regime, headed by President Raul Castro, uses an "Orwellian" law to keep dissidents locked up. Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images
Cuban leader Raul Castro has maintained an abusive system that his brother put in place to repress dissent, according to a report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch.
The report, "New Castro, Same Cuba," documents the cases of more than 40 political prisoners since Raul Castro took over from his brother Fidel on an interim basis in 2006 and permanently in February 2008.
The report's lead author, Nik Steinberg, says the Castro government uses an "Orwellian" clause in the country's criminal code to keep dissidents behind bars.
"One former political prisoner I spoke to was picked up at 5:50 in the morning, sentenced in a closed trial at 8:30 that same morning and sent to prison the same day. His crime was belonging to an unofficial political group. His charge was 'dangerousness,' " said Steinberg, who spent two weeks traveling in Cuba and conducting interviews.
"The dangerousness provision is not a new law. It was on the books before Raul Castro came to power. But it has become Raul Castro's repressive tool of choice," Steinberg said.
Human Rights Watch, an independent, nonprofit organization based in New York, said researchers conducted more than 60 in-depth interviews documenting government abuses.
The release of the report comes a day before a hearing by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday on whether to lift U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba.
Alberto Gonzalez, a spokesman at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., said his country doesn't recognize either "the legality or moral authority" of Human Rights Watch. In a statement e-mailed to NPR, Gonzalez said Human Rights Watch has a history of misrepresenting Cuban reality and "abides by the mercenary service of the anti-Cuban sector."
Some analysts have seen the emergence of bloggers in Cuba as a sign that Raul Castro is opening up the political system a bit. However, Steinberg says he discovered the limits of that.
A prominent blogger, Yoani Sanchez, was recently beaten, adding to the climate of fear, and Steinberg says only a tiny fraction of Cubans have access to the Internet and the blogs.
"One of the bloggers who we feature in this report said that he's never been able to see his own blog — so he doesn't even know what it looks like," Steinberg said. "We think it is wonderful that they are there, but we shouldn't overestimate the space that the government is allowing for them to exist."
The 123-page report has some policy prescriptions for the Obama administration, saying the five-decade U.S. trade embargo has not improved human rights in the country.
Daniel Wilkinson, deputy director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, said: "What we are proposing is that the U.S. lift the trade embargo and work with other democratic governments to forge an international coalition to press Cuba on one single concrete issue — the political prisoners."
He says that ultimately it is up to Congress to lift the embargo, and that is unlikely unless the Obama administration can convince lawmakers that other nations are on board with a new approach to use targeted sanctions or other tools to promote human rights in Cuba.