Friday, July 2, 2010

Amnesty urges Cuba to end political repression

By David Ariosto, CNN
July 1, 2010 6:46 p.m. EDT
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Amnesty International blasts Cuba on human rights
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Amnesty says Cuban government has created "climate of fear"
  • Group says laws are so vague almost any dissent is illegal in some way
  • Prisoner transfers, releases seem to hint at policy change
  • Catholic Church's influence apparently growing
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Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Cuba has created a "climate of fear" among political activists and journalists working on the island nation, according to a report released Wednesday by the human rights group Amnesty International.
"The laws are so vague that almost any act of dissent can be deemed criminal in some way, making it very difficult for activists to speak out against the government," Kerrie Howard, the group's deputy Americas director, said in a statement.
The London-based organization reported that the country's court system and penal codes are used to stifle dissent and urged the government to release what it identified as 53 "prisoners of conscience."
The Cuban government was not immediately available for comment but has traditionally viewed dissidents as mercenaries in the pay of foreign governments.
Cuba points to a series of clandestine actions by the United States that it says were designed to topple the country's leadership and overthrow a government installed by former Cuban president Fidel Castro in 1959.
The Amnesty report described the resulting 48 year-old U.S. trade embargo against the communist government as a "lame excuse" that Cuban leaders use to justify violating human rights.
Amnesty acknowledged that its reporting is based on "independent sources." It has no first-hand research on the island since being banned by the Cuban government in 1990.
The country's human rights record came under intense scrutiny earlier this year after jailed Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo died following a prolonged hunger strike.
Zapata's death sparked international condemnation from Europe and Washington and drew a rare statement of regret from Cuban President Raul Castro.
But a recent series of transfers of prisoners to jails closer to their homes, and the release of two political dissidents, have raised questions about whether Cuba is slowly changing policy toward its political prisoners.
Last week's release of jailed activist Darsi Ferrer follows a meeting between President Castro and Vatican Foreign Minister Dominique Mamberti, whose visit came amid signs of growing influence by Cuba's Roman Catholic Church.
In May, Cuba's Roman Catholic cardinal, Jaime Ortega, described a rare four-hour meeting with President Castro as a "magnificent start" to talks centered around the potential release of some of the island's jailed dissidents.
Church officials and human rights groups continue to express their desire for more prisoner releases.

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Havana hotels and Cuban cigars? House panel votes to remove travel ban on Caribbean island of Cuba

Thursday, July 1st 2010, 2:09 PM

Figueredo/AP/AP
The oceanfront where thousands of people marched to protest againt U.S. policies in 2004.
You can almost taste the Cuban cigars.

A vacation to Havana could become legal once again as a congressional panel voted on Wednesday to remove a trade and travel ban on the Caribbean island.

The House Agricultural Committee voted 25 to 20 to remove the ban, sparking a contentious debate as the legislation moves through Congress.

Passage of the bill would put "more American food on Cuba’s tables, and more American visitors on Cuba’s streets," according to Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

Stephens said lifting the ban would benefit both US and Cuban interests.

"Because of yesterday’s vote, we are closer to a decisive policy change that moves us in the right direction," she said. 

The embargo on Cuba dates back to the Kennedy administration shortly after Fidel Castro seized control of the island nation in 1959.

"We have tried isolating Cuba for more than 50 years, and it has not worked," House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson told Reuters.

An exception to the embargo was made for farm exports in 2000. But Peterson said the previous administration left burdensome impediments on trading.

"The people down there want Texas long-grain rice," Peterson said. "If we get these restrictions out of the way, I think we get a lot of that market back."

In Florida, where anti-Castro sentiment is high, politicians have denounced the vote as an appeasement to the despotic state.

"We'd be bailing out a brutal dictatorship on the brink of collapsing," said Republican Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida.

The bill still has two significant legislative hurdles to overcome before it can be given a full House vote.

Elian Gonzalez 'holds no grudge against Miami relatives'

Elian Gonzalez, the castaway Cuban boy who was at the centre of an international custody battle, has said he holds no grudge against his US relatives in his first public comments.

 
Elian Gonzalez
Elian Gonzalez, former cast away child whose mother died at sea became the center of a politically-charged international custody battle, ending with his repatriation to Cuba and his father Photo: AP

Now 16, he said of his Florida relatives: "Even though they didn't help me in every way possible – they didn't help me move forward – they are still my own family.
"I don't have anger for them."
"It's only that it wasn't the best effort possible, and thanks to a large part of the American public, and our public, today I'm with my father and I feel happy here," he said, breaking years of silence on the 10th anniversary of his return to Cuba.
A decade ago, the 5-year-old boy was found drifting alone off the coast of Florida after his mother and others fleeing Cuba drowned trying to reach US soil.
US immigration officials ruled the boy should return to his father in Cuba over the objections of his Miami relatives and Florida's substantial population of Cuban exiles, creating a furore that caused even presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore to weigh in.
Fidel Castro launched an international campaign for his return to his father. The row culminated with US immigration agents seizing the boy at gunpoint from the Miami home of his relatives.
Elian was celebrated as a hero in Cuba upon his return and his father, restaurant employee Juan Miguel Gonzalez, was elected to parliament – a seat he retains today.
Cuba marks Elian's birthday every December 7 with parades.
The 16-year-old was pictured for the first time in a decade three months ago, in a Young Communist uniform, when it emerged that he was studying to become a Cuban military officer.
On Wednesday, he attended a church service celebrating the 10th anniversary of his return to Cuba, sitting next to President Raul Castro.
The boy's father, speaking to reporters while he and his son posed for pictures with church-goers, said returning Elian to Cuba had been the right decision.
"I am even more certain today than I was at that moment," he said. "To see him today, doing well, with good grades in school, it shows that what we did, we did not do for no reason."
Unlike his son, the elder Mr Gonzalez said he still bears a grudge against the family in Miami for not helping him get Elian back, and he had a simple message for them.
"Here, we are united, with my people, who behaved better than they did," he said.