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Raul takes small steps on human rights

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080301/ap_on_re_la_am_ca/cuba_human_rights Raul takes small steps on human rights By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press Writer Sat
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 1, 2008

      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
      needs one."

      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
      than 200.

      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
      its "heart."

      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
      socialist system.

      "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
      Feb. 15.

      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.
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