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Cuba: the propaganda offensive

By Tim Anderson - posted Tuesday, 15 March 2005

In the current climate of global war, minor objections to the official American line can lend a semblance of independent credibility to Australian commentaries. Such is the case with Paul McGeough's recent charicature of Cuba in the Sydney Morning Herald ( February 19, 2005, “Castro's last stand”).

McGeough has been a moderately critical voice, among the brutality of the Iraqi occupation, although he still recites the absurd argument that recent elections (under war, censorship and repression) represented Iraqis' “first appointment with democracy” (Sydney Morning Herald January 24, 2005). In a similar way, his portrayal of Cuba aids the United States’ propaganda offensive.

The US has been running a diplomatic campaign against Cuba, to back its long-standing project of “regime change” for the island. It now has a Washington-based Transition Co-ordinator for Cuba, and a full program of World Bank-backed privatisations and corporate entry - all, of course, in the name of “freedom and democracy” for the Cuban people. Last year it managed to convince the United Nations Human Rights Commission to condemn Cuba, by a majority of one. The Howard Government, as usual, backs the Bush regime.


The talking point at the UN has been the jailing of 75 Cuban “dissidents” in 2003. Amnesty International and even the European Union (which passively opposes most US actions against Cuba) have given prominence to these people, as “prisoners of conscience”. This was McGeough's focus.

But the Sydney Morning Herald article is grossly dishonest. First, it opens with a claim it never justifies. The lead paragraph claims "those caught speaking out against the ailing dictator run the risk of death". McGeough also says the trials of the dissidents “revived memories of the worst Soviet human rights abuses” - suggesting Stalin-style mass murder. On more than one occasion, he also hints darkly at death threats.

Yet no evidence is given to suggest that political dissidents in Cuba are killed or tortured, as they have been (and on a large scale) by US backed regimes in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Chile and Colombia. The simple fact is there are no “death squads” in Cuba.

Even the US State Department, in its 2004 country report - and trying its hardest to vilify Cuba - acknowledged that Cuba had, “no political killings ... no reports of politically motivated disappearances”. The US also acknowledges there were no reports of religious repression, little discrimination, compulsory and free schooling, a universal health system, substantial artistic freedom, and no reports of torture. The Sydney Morning Herald, it seems, is keen to go further than the propaganda of the US State Department.

The State Department report did state, “prisoners [in Cuba] ... often were subjected to repeated, vigorous interrogations”. As a human rights abuse, this hardly compares with the very public tortures and murders of Iraqi prisoners by the US army.

The second element of dishonesty in the article concerns its main focus: the celebrated “dissidents” of 2003. In a long article, which includes interviews in Cuba with 2 released prisoners (several of the 75 have now been released), McGeough claims that most were jailed for simply expressing criticism of the Cuban Government, or of Fidel Castro.


Of Raul Rivero, for example, McGeough says, “Rivero's crime was twofold - possession of a typewriter, and a will to dream”. He then quotes charge sheets which refer to Rivero's supposed anti-social views. What the article fails to point out is that Rivero was charged with taking money from the US Government and from a Miami-based terrorist group, with the aim of overthrowing the Cuban Government and the Cuban Revolution.

The 2003 “dissidents” were charged with two specific crimes under Cuban law:

  1. [Acting] in the interest of a foreign state with the purpose of harming the independence of the Cuban state; and,
  2. seek[ing] out information to be used in the application of the Helms-Burton Act, the blockade and the economic war against our people.

The US has a law which requires the destruction of the Cuban system - the Helms-Burton Act. In response, Cuba has laws which ban collaboration with this US project.

In their 2003 book The Dissidents, Rosa Elizalde and Luis Baez discuss the Cuban operations which led to the March 2003 arrests and the evidence used in court. They show detailed evidence of support for Rivero in particular from the US Office of Interests in Havana (there is no US Consulate), and of donations to Rivero from the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation (CANF).

The CANF - supported by successive US Governments - has a long history of backing terrorist actions against Cuba, as well as demanding the overthrow of the Cuban Government. CANF founder, the late Jorge Mas Canosa, was a close associate and backer of Latin America's most famous terrorist, Luis Posada.

Posada was implicated in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner in Barbados which killed 73 passengers. He was sprung from jail several years later, with Mas Canosa's help. In the 1980s he went on to work in Honduras with the internationally-condemned “Contra” terrorism operation against Sandinista Nicaragua. Armed attacks on Cuba continued. In a 1998 interview with The New York Times, Posada claimed responsibility for bomb blasts at hotels in Cuba the previous year, one of which had killed young Italian tourist Favio di Celmo. Posada received his funds from the CANF. In September 1999 a special rapporteur for the United Nations Human Rights Commission confirmed that the CANF had financed and organised the placing of bombs at hotels in Varadero and Havana between April and October 1997.

This is the same CANF that was funding Raul Rivero, whose only crime (according to McGeough) was to possess "a typewriter, and a will to dream".

Posada was arrested in Panama in 2000 and charged with three others over an attempt to murder Fidel Castro at the Ibero-American summit. In April 2004 a Panamanian court sentenced Posada to eight years in jail. In August 2004, however, outgoing Panamanian President (an ally of Mr Bush), Mireya Moscoso, pardoned and released Posada “on humanitarian grounds”. There was no word of protest from Washington, in the middle of its “war on terror”.

There are people in prison and facing trial in Australia right now, charged with training and associating with “terrorist” groups. Yet neither the Sydney Morning Herald nor Amnesty International has declared them “prisoners of conscience”. Perhaps they should.

We are entitled to scrutinise the treatment of dissidents and prisoners in all countries, beginning with our own. Cuba is no exception to this. The difference between Australia and Cuba is that Cuba is subject to bombings, and overt plans to annex the island and set up a US-controlled puppet regime. Australia is not subject to such threats.

In its current climate of threat, Cuba has restricted opposition parties, but it is far from the “brutal dictatorship” portrayed by McGeough. I have visited the island twice. There is no general climate of fear. People speak freely, criticising their government, but criticising the US Government far more. Cubans also participate in their political system at much higher levels than do Australians.

Cuba's human rights record is remarkable - taking into account its excellent health and education systems, the care of its citizens’ basic needs, and the internationalism demonstrated through its health and education support to many other poor countries.

Unlike Australia, Cuba has never invaded another country, participated in the carpet bombing of civilians, or engaged in a worldwide torture network. There are great dangers in joining in with these new rounds of alleged “human right abuses”, levelled against “the Empire's” latest target.

We Australians know where to look for human rights abuses: it begins at home.

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Tim Anderson is a Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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