It was less bloody than the Bay of Pigs, less suspenseful than the Cuban missile crisis. But a diplomatic confrontation this year plainly showed the unchanging nature of one of the world’s more enduring rivalries: the United States versus Cuba.
The scene was the annual U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, and the outcome of the panel’s 7-week winter session might appear mundanely unremarkable: A commission delegation, at Cuba’s invitation, will visit the island sometime this summer to examine the state of human rights.
But that action culminated more than a year of extraordinary efforts by the United States to call Cuba to account on the rights issue and equally intense maneuvering by Cuba to counter the U.S. campaign.
There was enough ambiguity in the outcome to permit both sides to claim victory.
“Pure gold,” said Dennis Goodman, a State Department official, summing up the result.
“The most overwhelming political and moral defeat the Reagan Administration ever suffered” in Geneva, a Cuban Communist Party daily said.
The session was memorable for a number of reasons. There were Cuban allegations that the United States tried to bribe commission members in a frantic pursuit of votes and American assertions that countries that voted against Cuba could face a wave of Cuban-sponsored terrorism.
There was also the presence of a former political prisoner from Cuba as chief U.S. delegate at Geneva--an appointment that stunned President Fidel Castro. He said the United States was allowing itself to be represented by a convicted terrorist and called it “shameless.”
The struggle brought into focus the U.S. view that Cuba has a deplorable yet largely ignored human rights record and Cuba’s own contention that no Third World country has done more to protect the rights of its citizens than has Cuba since the 1959 revolution.
As the State Department sees it, there is “an aggressive, systematic and institutionalized denial of human rights in virtually every form” in Cuba.
Then there is Castro’s view: “There is no single country in which human rights are respected more carefully.”
Both countries expended large diplomatic and political resources in their campaigns. Commission members agonized over what they regarded as a no-win choice.
That dilemma was avoided when a resolution proposed by the United States was superseded by an alternate proposal drawn up by Cuba in cooperation with four Latin American countries and introduced during the final days of the session.
The U.S. resolution was drafted in moderate language in an attempt by American representatives to garner broad support. At no point did it directly accuse Cuba of violating human rights.
But Cuba lobbied vigorously against the resolution, apparently to avoid the stigma of approval for a measure sponsored by its archenemy.
Working in secret, Cuba and Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Peru came up with the alternative proposal, calling for a visit to Cuba at Cuba’s invitation this summer.
This alternative eventually was approved with U.S. support. At first, however, U.S. delegates reacted with surprise and anger to the new proposal, leaving the impression that they would have preferred an up-or-down vote on their own.
Countries Spared Choice
Many Third World countries that felt caught in the middle of U.S.-Cuban political war were elated at being spared having to choose between Washington and Havana.
The Cubans maintained that they had nothing to hide and that they showed their good will by inviting a commission delegation for an inspection tour. They said they would never be pressured into accepting a human rights investigating team and that they interpreted the withdrawal of the U.S. proposal as a victory.
“They (the United States) sustained the most overwhelming defeat that could have been inflicted on them,” said Raul Roa Kouri, head of the Cuban delegation.
That claim seemed a bit exaggerated. U.S. officials pointed out that were it not for the U.S. effort to highlight the Cuban issue, no alternative proposal would have been introduced.
‘Triumph for Rights’
Armando Valladares, the Cuban-born former political prisoner who led the U.S. delegation, said, “We consider it a triumph for human rights.”
The Reagan Administration’s appointment of Valladares as delegation head, with the rank of ambassador, contributed greatly to the contentious atmosphere at Geneva.
The Administration saw in Valladares a symbol of what it regarded as the area of Cuba’s greatest vulnerability on the human rights issue: its treatment of political prisoners.
Valladares spent 22 years in Cuban prisons before his release in 1982 through the intercession of French President Francois Mitterrand. He described his long ordeal in a 1986 book, “Against All Hope,” a brutal account of the systematic abuse, including torture, that he claimed to have suffered during his long confinement.
Written in Blood
As evidence of torture, he points to broken bones that never healed properly. He attributes scars on his left hand to hungry rats who shared his prison cell. He says that a lack of pencils in prison forced him to write a poem in his own blood.
Cuba has portrayed Valladares as a loyal servant in the pre-Castro police forces who became an anti-Castro terrorist afterward.
Castro expressed astonishment at Valladares’ appointment, telling an NBC interviewer in February: “You have turned . . . a terrorist who was arrested with a bag of dynamite supplied to him by the U.S. Embassy, you have made him head of the U.S. delegation. Never in history had such a shameless thing been seen.”
Valladares denied that he was a member of the police force of the rightist dictatorship that governed Cuba before 1959. He has said that Cuban documents purporting to prove his membership in the police force were fabricated.
Such was Cuba’s antipathy toward Valladares that Cuban diplomats in several capitals last February distributed a 38-page pamphlet entitled, “The 15 State Department lies about Valladares.”
In early June there were signs that Castro was intent on escaping a harsh judgment by the delegation. He disclosed his intention to release all but 44 of the 429 political prisoners he claims Cuba is holding.
However, the list is believed somewhat out of date because some of the prisoners mentioned are said to be either dead or already released.
Three former prisoners who recently were released and flew to Miami said that the 44 not included on Castro’s list apparently were being penalized for staging a prison protest. They said the demonstrators were assaulted by prison guards in late May for refusing meals.
Previous Effort Failed
Enrique Hernandez Mendez, who had been jailed for trying to leave Cuba without authorization, said the protesters objected to being moved into refurbished cells as part of an effort to create a false impression for the rights commission delegation.
The U.S. delegation went to Geneva determined to avoid a repeat of the 1987 session, when a similar attempt to call attention to Cuba’s human rights performance was defeated, 19 to 18, on a proposal by India to set aside the U.S. resolution.
Many U.S. officials reacted bitterly in the aftermath, particularly to the votes of five Latin American democracies that refused to back the U.S. position.
As U.S. officials described it, the Venezuelan delegate had received instructions from his foreign ministry to support the Indian motion. Shortly before the vote, however, Venezuelan President Jaime Lusinchi sent word to Geneva that he wanted his delegate to oppose the Indian proposal.
Unaware of Change
Aware of Lusinchi’s efforts, U.S. delegates informed the Venezuelan delegate of the change and pleaded with him to double-check his instructions. He refused and, as it turned out, his vote in support of the Indian resolution was decisive.
In Latin America, only Costa Rica sided with the United States. Argentina, Colombia and Peru joined Venezuela in support of the Indian proposal. Brazil abstained.
This year, as he did in 1987, President Reagan sent letters asking for support for the U.S. resolution to several presidents whose countries are commission members. A number of foreign ministers received similar letters from Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
The Administration believed that over the years the commission had focused disproportionate attention on anti-Communist states, such as South Africa, Israel and Chile, while generally ignoring abuses in Soviet Bloc states.
It found Cuba to be an irresistible target.
Except for occasional periods, U.S.-Cuban relations have been profoundly strained during the Reagan Administration. At Geneva, the Administration saw perhaps its last opportunity to strike a damaging propaganda blow at Cuba before leaving office.
To demonstrate that the U.S. resolution had backing outside the Administration, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.) and the panel’s ranking minority member, William S. Broomfield (R-Mich.) spent a day in Geneva lobbying for the U.S. proposal.
Geneva was abuzz with rumors that the United States was threatening retaliatory measures against countries that opposed the U.S. position.
Roa Kouri, the head of the Cuban delegation, accused U.S. officials of paying $50,000 bribes for a favorable vote. There were press reports that Robert Gelbard, a deputy assistant secretary of state, promised military and debt repayment assistance to Argentina during two visits to Buenos Aires shortly before the March 10 showdown in Geneva. Gelbard dismissed the reports as “Cuban disinformation.”
Goodman, of the State Department, said it was the Cubans who were engaging in intimidation. He said representatives of several countries indicated sympathy for the U.S. position but refrained from endorsing it because they feared Cuban retaliation.
Particularly galling to U.S. officials was the casual cooperation at Geneva between the Cuban and Colombian delegations on the proposal that was eventually approved. The Administration maintains that Cuba has been supporting Colombia’s M-19 guerrilla group for years.
Ramon Sanchez Parodi, who has headed the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington for 10 years, said that one reason Cuba agreed to an alternative resolution was to shield Third World countries that felt uncomfortable about having to make a choice between Washington and Havana.
Goodman felt the Cuban offer to invite a rights delegation backfired on them. He said that the original Cuban proposal called for Cuba to pay the expenses of the delegation, thus enabling Cuban authorities to exercise control over the panel’s activities.
What made the Cuban proposal acceptable to the United States was the intercession of commission Chairman Alioune Sene of Senegal, Goodman said.
As Goodman described it, Sene accepted the Cuban invitation but said that the visit would be carried out under standard U.N. practices--that the commission, and not the Cubans, will foot the bill.
Goodman predicted that the commission will deliver a “split decision” on Cuba’s rights practices, noting that an East Bloc representative, a Bulgarian, will be a member. In addition, there will be one delegate each from Asia, Latin America, the Western democracies and Africa joining the Senegalese chairman.
The commission is expected to spend five days in Cuba. Its members are authorized to gather information about human rights in Cuba from any source both on the island and outside, including the large community of Cuban exiles.
One of the principal guideposts for assessing Cuba’s rights performance is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the U.N. General Assembly a few years after the United Nations was founded in 1945.
Cuba would appear to be most vulnerable on the sections of the declaration dealing with freedom, including the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion and expression.
But Cuba comes out stronger than most other countries on certain other rights spelled out in the document. Among them are the right to work and to receive an education. Few Third World countries compare with Cuba’s record in providing employment and access to schooling. Still, more than 1 million Cubans have fled the island since the revolution.
In the February interview, Castro dismissed suggestions that Cuba’s rights record needs improvement.
Castro Defends Record
“There is absolute respect for the human rights of citizens,” he said. “There is no single country in which human rights are respected more carefully.
“Ask a worker, ask a peasant, ask a university student, ask intellectuals if there has ever been an assassination, a missing person, a tortured person in this country. That is a lie.”
The State Department Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs has a different view. In a December 1986 report, it said:
“Life in Cuba today is characterized by an aggressive systematic and institutionalized denial of human rights in virtually every form. . . . Freedom of expression does not exist. No criticism of the basic policies and Marxist-Leninist orientation of the government, party or its leadership is permitted. Telephones are routinely tapped and mail opened. . . . Those who choose the slightest form of political resistance usually pay a very high price: arrest, abuse, torture and cruel and unusual punishment.”