How Credible Is Human Rights Watch on Cuba?


In late 2009 the New York-based group Human Rights Watch published a report titled New Castro, Same Cuba.  Based on the testimony of former prisoners, the report systematically condemns the Cuban government as an “abusive” regime that uses its “repressive machinery . . . draconian laws and sham trials to incarcerate scores more who have dared to exercise their fundamental freedoms.”

The group says it interviewed 40 political prisoners and claims to have identified extraordinary laws by which Cubans can be imprisoned simply for expressing views critical of their socialist system.

At first glance one might be forgiven for thinking that Cuba must be among the worst of human rights abusers in the Americas.  A little reflection, however, might lead one to question such statements coming from the USA, a country with thousands held in an international network of secret prisons, many subject to torture regimes.

So how credible is this scathing report on Cuba?  And who does Human Rights Watch represent?

Answering the latter question is a little more difficult than it is for other organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), established by the US government, or even the France-based Reporters without Borders (RSF), funded directly by the US State Department for some of its anti-Cuba campaigns.  In the manner of “embedded journalists” who travel with US troops around the world, the NED and RSF can be considered “embedded watchdogs,” helping to legitimize or delegitimize regimes, consistent with US policy.

“Privatized, US-based Selection of Issues”

Human Rights Watch, however, is not funded by the US government.  Yet it gets most of its funds from a variety of US foundations, in turn funded by many of the biggest US corporations.  These wealthy, private foundations often tie their contributions to particular projects.  So for example HRW’s Middle East reports often rely on and acknowledge grants from pro-Israel foundations.  Other groups ask for a focus on women’s rights or HIV/AIDS issues.  More than 90% of HRW’s US$100 million budget in 2009 was “restricted” in this way.  In other words, HRW offers a privatized, US-based selection of rights issues catering to the wealthy.

The coordination of all these interests is best illustrated through HRW’s new chairperson, James F. Hoge, Jr.  A publisher and journalist, Hoge was editor of Foreign Affairs from 1992 to 2009, and a prominent member of that magazine’s sponsor, the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).  The CFR, regarded as the most influential of US foreign policy think tank, includes much of the US corporate elite (including banks and media) as well as past and present leaders of the two major parties.  Past US secretaries of state, such as Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice, and the current US secretary of defense Robert Gates are CFR members.  It is really a “Who’s Who” of the US elite.

The HRW board is similarly dominated by the US corporate elite, such as banking and corporate media executives, and some academics, though not government officials.  The board includes former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda (a former Marxist academic turned right-wing politician), while Chilean-born lawyer José Miguel Vivanco serves as director of HRW’s Americas division.

Vivanco has been the subject of most controversy in Latin America through his attacks on Venezuela and Cuba.  If HRW has at times appeared to be acting somewhat independently of US foreign policy, for example, when it supported the US “war on terror” but criticized US operations in Iraq, this has not been the case in Latin America, where the group has closely followed Washington’s line.

Of the HRW’s reports on Latin America over the past few years, the only systematic criticism of regimes has been of Venezuela and Cuba.  Reports on Brazil, Honduras, and Mexico have been on much more specific issues, such as police violence, transgender people’s rights, and military justice.  When it comes to Colombia, HRW has published reports on the use of landmines and the “paramilitary mafias.”  The latter report does note that Colombia has had worse violence “than almost any other country in the western hemisphere.”  Indeed, Colombia is way ahead of any other Latin American country in terms of the murder of trade unionists, journalists, lawyers, and ordinary people.  The Colombian military and its allied right-wing militias have been responsible for most of this slaughter, yet HRW blames left guerrillas and right militias equally, without implicating the regime of Alvaro Uribe, the major Latin American recipient of US aid.

Biased Reports

On the other hand, the group’s December 2008 report on Venezuela (A Decade under Chavez) had an open political motivation.  According to Vivanco, it was written “because we wanted to demonstrate to the world that Venezuela is not a model for anyone.”  That report was roundly criticized by more than a hundred academics for not meeting “even the most minimal standards of scholarship, impartiality, accuracy of credibility.”  Rather than a careful report on human rights, it was an attempt to discredit a government, mainly on the basis of allegations of “political discrimination” in employment and the judiciary.  The evidence was poor and the approach anything but systematic.  HRW disregarded this criticism.

The recent report on Cuba (New Castro, Same Cuba) is a similar attempt to pillory an entire social system on the basis of some anecdotes.  As has been the case for some years, the major US focus on “human rights” in Cuba is on the few dozen people arrested and jailed for what HRW says was simply pursuing their basic rights.  The Cuban government says most of these people were taking money from US programs designed to overthrow the Cuban social system.  HRW ignores Cuba’s right to protect itself from Washington’s interventionist programs.

In respect of the 40 former prisoners said to have been interviewed in Cuba, HRW draws attention to what it calls a law:

that allows the state to imprison individuals before they have committed a crime, on the suspicion that they might commit an offence in the future. . . .  This “dangerousness” provision [refers to] any behavior that contradicts socialist norms.  The most Orwellian of Cuba’s laws, it captures the essence of the Cuban government’s repressive mindset.

Other laws have been used, it says, which:

criminalize the exercise of fundamental freedoms, including laws penalizing contempt, insubordination, and acts against the independence of the state.  Indeed, article 62 of the Cuban constitution prohibits the exercise of any basic right that runs contrary to “the ends of the socialist state.”

HRW also claims that in January 2009 a number of young people in eastern Cuba were charged with “dangerousness” simply for being unemployed.  One was said to have been jailed for two years just “for being unemployed.”  HRW notes that Cuba links some arrests to “a US policy aimed at toppling the Castro government. . . .  However, in the scores of cases Human Rights Watch examined for this report, this argument falls flat.”

Let’s examine some of the legal and practical aspects of these claims.

Firstly, article 62 of the Cuban constitution actually says that citizens’ liberties “cannot be used against that established by constitution and the law, nor against the existence and objects of the socialist state, nor against the decision of the Cuban people to build socialism.”  That is not the same thing as “prohibiting the exercise of any basic right that runs contrary to ‘the ends of the socialist state’.”  Dissent is not the same thing as attacking the constitutional order.

Legally, there is indeed a principle of “social dangerousness” in Cuban law, but it is a concept that qualifies criminal and other offences.  For example, “social dangerousness” can aggravate an “act” which is an offence under labor law (Law 176).  Conversely, under the Penal Code (art. 14) the absence of “social dangerousness” can mitigate the penalty for an offence.  The “dangerous state” defined by the Penal Code (art. 72) is also a qualifier to a range of anti-social conduct, including drunkenness.

In other words, the HRW focus on “dangerousness” is an artifact.  There is no substantive offence of “dangerousness.”  It is a qualifier to actual conduct.  Similarly, the fact of being unemployed in Cuba is not any sort of offence.  That is just absurd.


However in the case of the celebrated “dissidents” — which include many of the “independent journalists” and “human rights defenders” funded by the US State Department and USAID programs to promote a “transition” in Cuba — the possession of large amounts of money while unemployed can constitute evidence of an offence.

For example, “dissident” Oscar Espinosa Chepe had been unemployed for 10 years at the time of his March 2003 arrest, yet he had more than $7,000 hidden in the lining of his suit.  That money could have been in the bank with his other savings, but it had recently come from a US-linked group.  Similarly, Raúl Rivero, Héctor Palacios, Osvaldo Alfonso Valdés, and others were charged because there was evidence (including receipts) that they had received money from US programs aimed to overthrow the Cuban constitution.  The HRW report ignores this evidence.

The same Miami groups that sent money to these Cubans (but note, most of the US government money stays in Miami, provoking conflicts within these groups) had organized bombings of tourist hotels in Cuba in the late 1990s.  Cuban authorities are unsurprisingly intolerant of this terrorism.  The March 2003 arrests were provoked by Cuban fears that the Bush regime would mount an Iraq-style invasion, making use of these paid agents.

After the New Castro report, Human Rights Watch maintained its campaign on behalf of the US-funded “dissidents.”  It demanded in January 2010 that the Cuban government “immediately cease its harassment of the blind human rights defender Juan Carlos González Leiva, a leader of the Council of Human Rights Rapporteurs.”  González Leiva heads the Camagüey chapter of the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights, a body which has been funded by Washington via Miami for at least a decade.

Some US “aid” for Cuban agents bypasses Miami.  The US government directly supports the “independent journalists” over whom both Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and HRW express so much righteous anger.  The US Interests Section in Havana (the de facto embassy) directly prints the Revista de Cuba magazine of the “Márquez Sterling Journalists Society,” while El Disidente magazine is printed in Puerto Rico but distributed through the Interests Section.

This information is published in some detail in Cuba but is barely mentioned by HRW, or in any other US reports.  Since the US “consensus” has effectively disqualified the entire Cuban system, no regard need be paid to such detail.  Yet there can be no doubt that independent countries have the right to self-defense from US subversion and terrorism.

HRW Does Not Condemn US Blockade

HRW says the 50-year economic blockade by the US of Cuba has failed, but (unlike the 187 countries that voted against the blockade at the United Nations in 2009) the New York-based group does not condemn this blockade as a violation of human rights.

Rather, HRW argues that Cuba uses the blockade as a pretext for repression.  It proposes a new program against Cuba where Europe and Latin America join with Washington in demanding “the unconditional release of all political prisoners,” including “the 53 dissidents still in prison from the 2003 crackdown.”  If these demands do not achieve their end, then countries, including the US, “should be able to choose individually whether or not to impose their own restrictions on Cuba.”  In fact, the US is the only country with such sanctions against Cuba.

This sort of “human rights intervention” is consistent with US foreign policy in Latin America.  Dispensing with troublesome, independent regimes was practiced ad nauseum throughout the “American Century” and was always backed by the US corporate elite.  Delegitimization campaigns have always preceded “regime change,” for example in Guatemala and Chile.  Human Rights Watch apparently sees no abuse of human rights in such interventions.

Sitting Down with CIA Agents

José Miguel Vivanco has sat on panels with Caleb McCarry, the Bush-appointed and Washington-based “Transition Administrator” for a “Free Cuba,” without a word about the appalling human rights abuse implicit in one country pretending to organize the political “transition” of another country.  On this count, HRW needs a little homework on article 1 of the International Bill of Rights, which sets out the “right of a people to self-determination.”

Vivanco has similarly spoken on panels with former CIA agents Frank Calzon and Carlos Montaner, people who have personally organized terrorist attacks on Cuba.  He did not sit down to condemn them for these attacks, but rather to concur with them over support for the US-backed “dissidents.”  Such is the flexibility of his advocacy.

As a reward for his services, in June 2009 Vivanco received a National Endowment for Democracy award for his work for “Democracy in Cuba.”  This made the US government link quite clear.

US propaganda campaigns against Cuba have not flagged in half a century, and HRW is just one of the more recent contributors.  Responding to cries from the US for “human rights and freedom,” one Cuban diplomat wearily replied, “of course, and the US has a very long history in this, from Batista, Somoza, Trujillo, Duvalier, Pinochet, Videla,” referring to the US-backed dictators of Cuba, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Chile, and Argentina.

All the prisoners HRW spoke with had been released.  One wonders what the HRW report might have said had it discovered a hidden prison in Cuba where hundreds were held without charge, tortured, and argued to be beyond the reach of any legal system?

In the case of those prisoners — held by the US military in occupied Cuba, at Guantanamo Bay — HRW wrote (in January 2010) that US President Barrack Obama should “renew his pledge” to close the prison.  No condemnation of the “abusive” Washington regime for its “repressive machinery.”  But why should we expect such candor and self-criticism from the US elite?

The lesson from the Human Rights Watch reports on Cuba is that we have nothing to learn about the little Caribbean island — whether on its weaknesses or strengths — from a self-appointed organization which represents the US corporate and foreign policy elite.

A Note on Sources: Some detail of the charges against the “dissidents” arrested in March 2003 was published at that time by Cuba’s foreign ministry (MINREX), and remains online.  More detail emerged in the 2003 book The Dissidents by Cuban journalists Luis Báez and Rosa Miriam Elizalde.  Many articles on the US-funded organizations (mostly Miami-based, but also the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders) that work with the US government against Cuba have been written by the French-Canadian journalist Jean-Guy Allard, French academic Salim Lamrani, and US journalist Diana Barahona.  Human Rights Watch funders appear in its annual reports and linked funding is often acknowledged in its country reports.

Tim Anderson is a senior lecturer in political economy at Sydney University.  This article was first published by LINKS on 11 February 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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