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Contesting Human Rights in Cuba

Government uses term to mean welfare provision while critics call for civil, political and economic rights.
By Laura Paz, Odelín Alfonso Torna, Osniel Carmona Breijo

While the Cuban government uses the language of human rights to talk about its achievements, the average citizen has few opportunities to find out about international standards of liberty, activists in the country say.

“The term ‘human rights’ started being used publicly in Cuba a little under than two decades ago,” Milagros Breijo Cazalvilla, who holds a master’s degree in science teaching, said. “It is generally used in government circles and by the opposition. For the general population, it’s an unfamiliar term.”

Copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not printed in Cuba, and cannot be found in libraries here.

According to historian Roberto Ernesto Días Vázquez, coordinator of the Transition Support Centre, half a century of official reticence on the subject means that human rights “don’t exist in the minds of Cubans”.

“Cubans do not understand what human rights are because of government interference with the media,” he added.

José Antonio Fornaris, who heads the Cuban Association for Freedom of the Press, describes human rights as a “necessity” but also as a “fantasy” given that the government does not respect them.

According to Manuel Cuesta Morúa, head of the opposition Arco Progresista Party, that does not mean people have no sense of their own rights.

“The average Cuban is unaware of or indifferent towards the abstract concept of human rights,” he said, adding that in practice, people understood “the right to food, housing, a private-sector economy, and mobility within their own country”.

International Human Right’s Day on December 10 is a contested date. The government uses the day to promote its policies, with media statements about how free healthcare and education means that human rights are being upheld.

Meanwhile, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group that documents rights violations, says that December is historically the month when most detentions occur, as the authorities try to stop their opponents marking the day.

According to Jorge Olivera Castillo, head of the Cuban Writers’ Club, the government regards December 10 as a “counter revolutionary” event requiring firm action.

Breijo Cazalvilla regrets the disregard that officials have for basic freedoms.

“It is incredible that elementary rights like freedom of expression, protest and assembly, the choice of where you live, voting in real elections for representatives who meet your expectations, and fair pay for your work to deliver personal wellbeing… are all tarnished by excuses made up by foolish, malicious people,” she said.

Laura Paz is an independent journalist in Cuba. Odelín Alfonso Torna is an independent journalist reporting from Havana. Osniel Carmona Breijo reports from both Havana and Mayabeque province.

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