- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2008



Along with Cuban-Americans in Miami, particularly the younger generation, and such business organizations as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau Federation, there is rising urgency that President-elect Barack Obama end our isolation from Cuba and restore relations while also removing travel barriers. Business groups include freeing trade restrictions. The Castros’ political prisoners have not been asked for their views on this issue.

The clear, cold facts on the Cuban ground, says Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, are that “despite the handoff of power from Fidel to Raul Castro, the Cuban government still refuses to tolerate even the most basic assertion of human rights.” Among the many examples of the crackdowns on peaceful dissenters is the Dec. 10 marking of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a text banned in state libraries). Many participants were arrested on the way to Havana. Their families do not yet know where they’re being held.

Obama advisers would do well to consult Belinda Salas, president of the Latin American Federation of Rural Women (FLAMUR) who, on Dec. 9 in Havana, was assaulted along with her husband, former political prisoner Lazaro Alonso, by official thugs who, tearing the shirt from her body, fractured her hand. Mrs. Salas has not heard from her husband, who was taken by authorities. Cuban officials refuse to disclose his location.

The Castro dictatorship, she told the Dec. 10 Christian Science Monitor, “want(s) to sell the image that they respect human rights, so they beat us to avoid our peaceful protests planned” for the next day.

Still caged by the Castro brothers under long sentences are more than 220 “traitors,” as the regime calls them. The accurate way to describe them, many who have been in need of medical attention for years, is, Amnesty International insists, “prisoners of conscience.” I and others, such as Ray Bradbury (“Fahrenheit 451”), have been concentrating on the imprisoned independent librarians whose crime is opening their homes and libraries to such books banned in the state library system as a biography of Martin Luther King Jr., and, of course, George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” But the range of this Communist dictatorship’s enemies is much broader. The PEN writers’ organization is trying to get imprisoned writers released, while the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and the international Coordinating Committee of Press Freedom organizations is involved with endangered journalists.

Nor is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce concerned with the work of networks of historians and labor union associations trying to protect those courageous imperiled Cubans with the audacity to hope for democracy they can believe in.

And I expect that at least some in the multitude of American bloggers are worried about the safety of Cuba’s best-known independent blogger, Yoani Sanchez, who has been warned by police that she had “transgressed all the limits of tolerance with your closeness and contact with elements of the counter revolution.” Were I Cuban, I suppose I’d be targeted as a counterrevolutionary for having asked Che Guevara the only time I met him at the Cuban Mission to the United Nations whether he could possibly envision eventual free elections in Cuba. Although he professed not to understand English, Che, who still is lionized on T-shirts in this country, didn’t wait for the translator and burst into laughter. It was then I learned that laughter can be chilling.

Speaking of free elections and other subversive visions of democracy in Cuba, Roger Cohen in “The End of the Revolution” (New York Times Magazine, Dec. 7), told of Hector Palacios, imprisoned three times because, he says, “my crime was simple: thinking that the government has to change from totalitarianism.” One of his more outrageous crimes was organizing in the past for the Varela Project a petition asking for a referendum that would bring democratic change. Many courageous Cubans signed it, to no avail.

Last May, in Miami, Mr. Palacios met Mr. Obama, whom he buoyantly describes as “the new element. He’s willing to talk to anyone. As with our aging government, the hard-line generation of Cuban-Americans is dying out. Significant change is possible within two years.” But, in Cuba, indicating that a hard-line on freedom is not slackening, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, who is among those who could succeed Raul Castro, declared on Human Rights Day in December that after half a century reign, Cuba’s human rights record, with some “imperfections” is such that Cuba and its leaders “can celebrate this day with heads held high.” Once in the Oval Office, Mr. Obama would be consistent with his human-rights protestations to require at least that the “prisoners of conscience” be released before we restore relations with Cuba. And Mr. Obama should consider urging the American Library Association to at last be faithful to its own principles be strongly recommending to Raul Castro that he also include the immediate release of the independent librarians.

Until now, the ALA has refused to do that, even though it has honored Mr. Bradbury for “Fahrenheit 451,” which foretold a grim time when governments would burn books, declaring reading an act of disloyalty to the state.

Many of the books Fidel Castro seized from independent librarians were burned by orders of his courts. Mr. President-elect, please help these prisoners of conscience where so many, including the ALA, have failed to do so.

Nat Hentoffs column for The Washington Times appears on Mondays.

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