Latin America and human rights in Cuba

Latin America and human rights in Cuba


Meeting at its Geneva headquarters on April 15, the United Nations Human Rights Commission voted in favour (22 to 21, with 10 abstentions) of a resolution on the state of human rights in Cuba. Like every year, it was one of the key moments at the meeting of the Commission, which once again confronted the governments of Washington and Havana. The Latin American vote was decisive.


Of the 53 members of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (HRC) that meets annually in Geneva, 11 are from Latin America. Seven of them (Costa Rica, Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and the Dominican Republic) voted in favour of the resolution, while three (Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay) abstained and only Cuba voted against. While the US, the EU countries and Japan also voted in favour of the resolution, most of the African block, along with China and India, rejected it. Each of the Latin American votes responded to a combination of internal and external factors, most importantly the strong pressure put on them by both the US government and Cuba.


The Vote
On April 15, 2004, the HRC voted on a resolution presented by Honduras and seconded by El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru, Australia and the Czech Republic, condemning the Cuban government for its human rights policy (though this term was not expressly used) and calling on it to ‘abstain from taking action that could endanger the fundamental rights of its citizens, such as the right to free expression and the right to a fair trial’. Although the Commission ‘deplores the events last year in Cuba’, it did not directly mention the arrest of 75 dissidents (most of them writers and journalists) in March 2003. It simply requested that Christine Chanet, a French CRH representative, be sent to Cuba but, once again this year, she will not be received on the island. Many anti-Castro activists and NGOs commented that its contents made it a very lukewarm resolution. As in recent years, the final vote was very close: 22 votes in favour, 21 against and 10 abstentions. Cuba has been reprimanded 13 of the 14 times the issue has been dealt with. The only exception was in 1998.

It is interesting to consider all the votes cast in order to know who supported each position. Those in favour were Germany, Armenia, Australia, Austria, South Korea, Costa Rica, Croatia, Chile, the US, France, Guatemala, The Netherlands, Honduras, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Peru, the UK, the Dominican Republic and Sweden. Against were Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Bahrain, Burkina Faso, Congo, Cuba, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Swaziland, Togo, the Ukraine and Zimbabwe. Argentina, Bhutan, Brazil, Eritrea, Gabon, Mauritania, Nepal, Paraguay, Sri Lanka and Uganda abstained.

The Cuban Foreign Minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, said that ‘the rich countries, some minor US allies, and Latin American countries that are not independently-minded’ voted against Cuba. He pointed out that there were no African, Arab or Asian countries in this group. In his opinion, the vote in favour was clear ‘subordination to the United States’. Of course, by such a definition he could make a map to his own liking, since South Korea and Japan were excluded from Asia for being rich countries. Armenia is a particular case, since its main ally, Russia, voted against the resolution. Other cases worth considering are Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan, supposed US allies who also voted against it. Pérez Roque is right that Arab and African countries voted against or abstained, which suggests that US pressure there is somewhat limited.

As for the Latin American vote, according to Pérez Roque, it is a question of certain countries that are not independently-minded (Mexico, Peru and Chile) voting in favour of the resolution. The Cuban government’s yardstick is a curious one: Castro praised Mexico and Chile when, as non-permanent members of the Security Council, they opposed the war in Iraq, but now they are condemned as ‘puppets of imperialism’ for denouncing the human rights situation in Cuba. Apart from condemning double standards, Havana’s message is clear: you’re either with us or against us.

Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, the Mercosur members on the HRC, led the Latin American abstentions, though this sub-regional block was in no way taking a joint stance. Hypothetically, even if something of the kind had occurred, Uruguay would most likely have opposed it, considering that last year it joined Peru in putting forward the resolution against Cuba. Finally, it is odd that the Latin American abstentions coincided with those of Bhutan, Eritrea, Gabon, Mauritania, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Uganda, none of which have great affinity with the region. Cuba’s was the only Latin American vote against the resolution, although Venezuela gave loud, firm support from outside the HRC. And while the US could not drag in an affirmative vote from any Arab or Asian country, neither could Cuba draw a negative vote from any Latin American government. It is also interesting to consider the human rights records of many of the countries that voted with Cuba, such as Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China, to give only a few examples.

The Latin American Vote
In 2004 there were seven Latin American votes in favour, three abstentions and two negative votes, and in 2003 it was much the same situation: seven, two and two, with Costa Rica, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Paraguay and Uruguay in favour, Argentina and Brazil abstaining and Venezuela and Cuba against.

As on previous occasions, Cuba took the defeat very badly. It was clear that the US still has more sway in Latin America than the government in Havana. Foreign Minister Pérez Roque’s message betrayed his displeasure with the result. He stated categorically that this was ‘a real defeat for the US, a pyrrhic victory… a ridiculous result that could never be presented as a condemnation of Cuba’. Proof of Cuban displeasure with the resolution and, above all, with the US, came when Havana’s representative to the HRC presented a draft resolution condemning the US for the conditions in which al-Qaeda prisoners are being held at the Guantánamo base, titled ‘The question of arbitrary detentions at the US Naval Base in Guantánamo’. Finally, faced with the possibility that Washington could block voting with a no-action motion, Cuba decided not to take it to a vote. Havana’s permanent ambassador to the international bodies in Geneva, Iván Mora Godoy, said that Cuba’s ‘proposal will stay alive, pricking the conscience of those unable to speak the truth’ and that ‘Western countries and some Latin American ones were visibly afraid to take a dignified stance against the Bush administration’s fascist practices’.

The Cuban Foreign Minister also criticized the president of the Commission, the Australian Mike Smith, for his ‘lack of neutrality and objectivity’. Pérez Roque said the HRC ‘loses credibility’ if it will not debate the Cuban resolution against the US. At a press conference before the vote, Pérez Roque tried to make those who voted against Cuba look bad by insisting that double standards were applied when speaking about Cuba and the US. His statements do not get to the root of the problem: the systematic violations of human rights on the island, which the Castro government tries to pass off as mere anecdote or else as a response to constant American aggression. As always, aggressors that play the role of victims take no responsibility for their actions. For its part, the US is the other side of the coin: Cuban displeasure was matched by the smug contentment of the American delegation. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, ‘We are grateful that so many Latin American democracies have taken on global leadership on human rights issues’.

Honduran sponsorship of the resolution earned President Maduro heaps of verbal abuse from Cuba, starting with accusations of ‘servility’. At the press conference in Havana on March 31 of this year, after Honduras followed the lead of the US, Pérez Roque said that: ‘Cuba considers this shameful decision a disgraceful act that makes the government of Honduras an accomplice to US aggression and the blockade of Cuba. The [Honduran] decision… contributes to the policy of US aggression against our people, helps keep the so-called ‘Cuba Issue’ on the HRC agenda and contributes to fabricating the pretext the US needs to justify its aggressive anti-Cuban policy’. Pérez Roque took his accusation further and, inevitably, ended up bringing Spain into the fray: ‘On March 5, at a summit of Central American heads of state in Madrid, the Spanish Prime Minister, José María Aznar, asked for the support of the Central American presidents in this initiative, and in particular, he asked for President Maduro to make a special gesture on the part of Honduras. President Bush had said that this was a very personal issue for him, something of great personal importance to him. The Spanish Prime Minister then asked President Maduro to go ahead; he asked the Central Americans to support him and tried to organize a way for them to sponsor the text and, since a country was needed to present it, Honduras would be that country’.

Cuba put strong pressure on Honduras and the Havana government decided not to accept a Honduran delegation that was trying to close negotiations on delimitation of their maritime boundaries. The issue had been virtually wrapped up four years before, but signing was once again postponed by Cuban discontent with the Honduran position. For Maduro it was not a question of Cuban betrayal: ‘This is nothing more than a petition that Cuba receive a human rights representative. This is not a condemnation or a betrayal of anybody. If I could be bought for what Cuba does to help us, this would be bad… The same is true if we gave in to US pressure because of the aid they give us’.

As for Mexico, Pérez Roque said that its ‘anti-Cuban’ vote puts bilateral relations ‘in a confrontational context’, destroying the small signs of improvement in relations between the two countries. At the same press conference, he said: ‘The decision of President Fox’s government to ignore the clamour of the vast majority of Mexican society and of Congress obviously destroys the small signs of interest and puts bilateral relations in a confrontational context. The Mexican government has joined the US in its policy of aggression’. Fox made the decision to vote in favour of the resolution after speaking with Bush shortly before the vote, though it is most likely that the final decision was made after it became clear which way Chile would vote. Under pressure from Cuba’s defenders and from opposition politicians draped in the flag of Mexican nationalism, Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez will appear on May 6 before the Senate Foreign Affairs Commission to explain the vote in Geneva.

Argentine Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa upheld his country’s decision to abstain, saying that it had ‘nothing to do with doing a favour for Cuba’ and that his government was ‘convinced’ that condemnation ‘would not help materially improve human rights’ in Cuba, a country, he said, that is not alone in the Americas in failing to respect human rights. Speaking before the Congress Foreign Affairs Commission, Bielsa said the Argentine vote was ‘an absolutely rational political stance’ since ‘a vote against Cuba would not help improve human rights on the island. It is a politicized and well-founded vote’. Argentina was under strong Cuban and American pressure to say which way it would vote, although this was made explicit only by the US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega, who said that Argentina ‘seems to have taken a turn to the left’, and that its Cuba policy was ‘a cause for concern and disappointment’.

Brazil, for its part, continued to abstain as it has in previous years. This enabled the Lula government to avoid excessive turbulence on the issue. Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said: ‘The parameters of the Brazilian position are well known and we see no specific reason to change them now’. This recalls the visits by presidents Lula and Kirchner to Cuba in 2003. In line with Argentina and Brazil, Paraguay also abstained, despite strong US pressure. President Bush telephoned his counterpart, Nicanor Duarte Frutos, to get his support in the vote on Cuba, but the answer was no.

An important and new factor in the regional context was the Chilean attempt to obtain a consensus for a Latin American vote that would not question the Cuban regime. This happened when certain sectors in Chile accused the government of isolating the country from the rest of Latin America, especially from South America. As a result, Chilean diplomats spent several weeks negotiating with Argentina, Mexico and Brazil, trying to come to a proposal for common abstention with a joint justification for voting that way. For President Ricardo Lagos the Geneva ‘ritual’ has no effect on the human rights situation in Cuba and only justifies the US embargo. Lagos spoke with presidents Fox and Lula and also met with Marco Aurelio García, Lula’s main advisor on international policy.

To make headway in that direction, Chile had asked the Cuban government for a gesture, which initially involved freeing the 75 imprisoned dissidents, which Havana refused to do, thereby limiting Chile’s room to manoeuvre. The Lagos government faced strong pressure from major sectors of the Socialist Party in the governing coalition that favoured abstention and even had objectives in common with Havana’s ambassador in Santiago, Alfonso Fraga. The president of the Christian Democrats (DC), Adolfo Zaldívar, acting independently of his party, also took part in the pursuit of a solution favourable to Cuba. Zaldívar provided a formula that gave Cuba one year to improve the situation. His attempts failed after the Chamber of Deputies had discussed the issue. The DC and part of the PPD, representing the government, and the UDI and the National Renewal Party (RN), for the opposition, requested that the government back a negative vote, which is what finally happened. The last card the Chilean government tried to play was to have Raúl Rivero and Oscar Espinoza freed, but this too was categorically ruled out: both men had been found guilty of ‘working for the US and carrying out subversive activities’. Chile’s decision was also motivated by an article in Granma, which denounced the ‘uncontrolled rearming’ of the Chilean armed forces, backed by the US. According to some Chilean diplomatic sources, after the vote ambassador Fraga said it was ‘shameful’ for Chile to take a stance that, he felt, gave in to the American lobby. He also said that the vote of condemnation ‘keeps [bilateral] relations frozen’.

During their explanation of the Chilean vote, the ambassadors of Chile and Mexico denounced the economic embargo of Cuba and the Chilean ambassador also criticized the situation in Guantánamo. The Cuba issue is still alive in Chile, this time involving Havana’s resolution on Guantánamo. This issue affects the debate on whether or not Chile is isolated from the rest of Latin America. The US ambassador in Santiago, William Brownfield, said that if Chile supports the Cuban resolution, ‘I imagine that we will not coincide with that vote’, because what happens in Guantánamo is governed by the Geneva Convention, not by the Human Rights Convention. And although he said that relations between Chile and the US ‘are broad enough not to be destroyed by a single case’, he warned that ‘decisions have consequences’. Meanwhile, Christian Democrat Senator Jorge Lavandero and Socialist members of parliament Alejandro Navarro and Sergio Aguiló gave a joint press conference calling on the government to support the Cuban proposal.

Cuban Pressure
Different Cuban representatives, beginning with Foreign Minister Pérez Roque and Cuban ambassadors in Latin America, doled out rebukes and thanks to the various governments, according to how they voted. They acknowledged the abstentions and strongly reproached those who voted in favour. The adjectives used by the Cuban authorities tend to be very harsh on occasions like this. For example, Fidel Castro once called former Argentine president Fernando de la Rúa a ‘Yankee boot-licker’ when the latter decided to continue with Carlos Menem’s policy of voting against Cuba on the HRC.

In the months before the vote, Cuba put intense pressure on the Latin American countries that were going to vote in Geneva. Visits by high Cuban dignitaries were combined with visits by Cuban ambassadors to the foreign ministries of the capitals where they were accredited. In late February, Pérez Roque was in Paraguay, Chile and Argentina. At the same time, pro-Cuban political and social groups were asked to speak out publicly in defence of the Castro regime. Unlike what usually occurs when the shoe is on the other foot, there was no outcry about Cuban interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

An argument commonly used by Cuban diplomats to force Latin America to vote for their proposals is the ‘Estrada Doctrine’ or at least its unorthodox version, in terms of non-interference in the affairs of third countries. Referring to the Mexican vote, Pérez Roque said: ‘If Mexico had voted according to the tradition established by the Estrada Doctrine in its constitution, the resolution would never have passed’. It is curious how some of the greatest supporters of extraditing General Pinochet to Spain, basing their arguments on the authority of international justice in cases of genocide, turn a blind eye when Cuba is involved.

Cuban pressure was not limited only to manoeuvres by its political leaders and diplomats: cooperation also played an important role. In this regard, Venezuela is not an isolated case in Latin America or in the Caribbean. Cuban doctors, teachers and technical workers are present wherever they are allowed and this situation is reinforced by the great number of grants for Latin American students to pursue their university studies in Cuba. Paraguayan President Duarte Frutos openly acknowledged the practical nature of his country’s vote: ‘Foreign policy depends very much on national politics and on the domestic situation. Here we have 600 young people from very humble families who are studying in Cuba in a cooperation process that has been going on for over six years. There are also Cuban doctors in Paraguay and in current circumstances, although as a government we deeply respect human rights, Paraguay’s vote… will be an abstention’. In Honduras, Cuba offers grants to numerous young people to study medicine on the island and collaborates by providing free medical services to Hondurans.


The vote on human rights in Cuba has once again polarized Latin American public opinion, though once again it is clear that the US is more effective than Cuba in pressuring governments in the region. Nevertheless, and thanks to Cuban pressure combined with other domestic political issues, Argentina and Brazil, the two biggest countries in South America, ended up abstaining.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the vote was the lack of debate on the issue. Votes were based more on obligation or commitment than on conviction, which implies that most governments in the region have either abandoned or forgotten their commitment to the democratic agenda. The defence of democracy (Cuba is the last remaining dictatorship in Latin America) is no longer on the agenda of a large part of the region, to the point that some countries are discussing the possibility of Cuba joining Mercosur or other sub-regional agreements. This is why the path followed by Chile is outstanding. Given its profile in Latin America, Chile is a country that should receive more backing from the EU, starting with Spain, and from the United States. It is sad that short-term perspectives, such as Ambassador Brownfield’s, do little to support one of the few countries in the region that stands out for the solidity and responsibility of its democratic institutions.

Carlos Malamud
Senior Analyst, Latin America, Real Instituto Elcano