Raul takes small steps on human rights
By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press Writer Sat Mar 1,
4:21 AM ET
HAVANA - Once known as the "fist" of Cuba's
revolution, 76-year-old Raul Castro may be showing a
brush of the velvet glove since taking power.
Just a week into his job as Cuba's new president,
Castro discussed the island's prisoners with a
visiting Vatican official and directed his government
to sign two international human rights treaties that
his older brother, Fidel, opposed.
Some dissidents and human rights activists see reason
for cautious optimism, but others don't expect
"He wants to give the Cuban government a new image,"
said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a state-trained economist
who became an anti-communist dissident. "In the areas
of human and social rights, the government surely
The younger Castro succeeded his brother on Feb. 24
after Fidel, 81, announced he was not well enough to
seek another term as president ending his 49 years
of near-absolute power.
Raul's first diplomatic meeting as head of state came
with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone Pope Benedict XVI's
secretary of state whose previously scheduled visit
coincided with Cuba's handover in power.
Bertone said he talked about the Roman Catholic
Church's concerns about Cuba's prisoners and their
families. He said the meeting could "send a message of
more openness to the United States and Europe."
But dissident Oswaldo Paya, who won the European
Union's Andrei Sakharov prize for human rights in
2002, said the very succession from one Castro brother
to another was a disappointment.
"The driving force of society should be the
sovereignty of the people, not the Communist Party,"
Paya wrote in a statement distributed to international
media on the island. "The people of Cuba want changes
that signify liberty, open expression of their civil,
political, economic and social rights."
The single-party government brooks no organized
opposition and dismisses dissidents as U.S.-paid
mercenaries trying to topple the communist system.
Havana claims it holds no prisoners of conscience,
although international human rights groups list more
But at the United Nations on Thursday, Cuban Foreign
Minister Felipe Perez Roque signed two international
human rights treaties from 1976 that guarantee the
right of peaceful assembly and the freedom to form
independent trade unions and to leave the country, as
well as the right to vote.
Former political prisoner Eloy Gutierrez-Menoyo
founded a Miami-based opposition group but returned to
Cuba in 2003 with hopes of playing an activist's role
here. He said the treaties had "tremendous importance"
and could open the door to creating more than a single
political party in Cuba.
Cuba says it will adhere only to parts of the treaties
it considers "relevant," and the foreign minister's
signing of them still must be ratified by the Cuban
But Raul Castro's government signed the pacts even
though Fidel opposed them for more than three decades,
saying he feared U.S. agents might infiltrate
independent unions to pit labor factions against one
When Cuba announced it planned to sign the treaties in
December 18 months after the ailing Fidel
provisionally handed over power to his brother Fidel
ordered state television to rebroadcast 2001 footage
of him denouncing them, lest Cubans forget his
When the Castro brothers' rebels toppled dictator
Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Raul was the enforcer,
directing firing squads that executed hundreds of
political opponents. An often-cited foreign press
account dubbed Raul the revolution's "fist" and Fidel
But since Fidel fell ill, Raul has called for Cubans
to publicly debate their country's future without fear
of reprisal, so long as they don't challenge the
"We shall not avoid listening to everyone's honest
opinion," Castro said in his acceptance speech. But he
added that the Communist Party as a whole will fill
the void left by his brother's stepping down.
Since Raul took provisional power 19 months ago, the
reported number of political prisoners on the island
has dropped by 26 percent, from 316 to 234, according
to the independent, Havana-based Cuban Commission on
Human Rights and National Reconciliation. Another four
inmates were released into forced exile in Spain on
Commission President Elizardo Sanchez said once
parliament ratifies the newly signed rights treaties,
Cuba will be compelled to release 55 dissidents still
behind bars after a 2003 crackdown that rounded up 75
Many of those freed since Raul took power were already
close to completing lengthy prison terms. Sanchez
acknowledged a new crop of prisoners has not been
jailed since then, but said there has been an increase
in short detentions and beatings of dissidents.
"They have changed tactics, but the level of
repression is the same," he said.