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Human Rights Watch and Cuba

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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 which by 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 amongst 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 organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), established by the US Government, or even the French-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 legitimise or delegitimise regimes, consistent with US policy.

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 Middle East reports often rely on and acknowledge grants from Jewish, pro-Israel foundations. Other groups ask for a focus on women's rights or HIV/AIDS issues. More than 90% of HRW's $100 million budget in 2009 was "restricted' in this way. In other words HRW offers a privatised, wealthy, US-based selection of rights issues.

The coordination of all these interests is best illustrated through HRW's new chairman, 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 tanks, includes much of the US corporate elite (including banks and media) as well as past and present leaders of the two major parties. Past Secretaries of State such as Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice, and current Secretary of Defence Robert Gates are CFR members. So is the World Jewish Congress. 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, but not government officials. The board includes former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda (a former Marxist academic turned right wing politician), while Chilean-born lawyer Jose' 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 criticised 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 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 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 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.

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 criticised by over 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 on 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 ("Different 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 behaviour 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, they say, 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'."

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Tim Anderson is an academic and social activist based in Sydney, Australia
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