Elizardo Sanchez: Has anything changed in Cuba?
- 31 March 2014
In March, Elizardo Sanchez and Barbara Estrabao of CCDHRN (translated as the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation), an organisation that AEDH has been supporting for more than fifteen years, met with us in Lyon. We caught up with them to learn about the current situation in Cuba.
The European Union (EU) has just put an end to the “common position” on Cuba that limited political, diplomatic and cultural relations with the country. Last March, Laurent Fabius met with the Cuban Minister for Foreign Affairs. What’s your view on the current discussions between the Cuban authorities and the EU?
Elizardo Sanchez: We’re sceptical about the outcomes. The Cuban authorities are really good at making promises and not keeping them! We don’t oppose the current discussions but we must insist that the EU does not neglect human rights in its political dialogue with Cuba. The representatives of the main civil society organisations in Cuba – ourselves included – have just agreed upon a joint communiqué that calls for political prisoners to be released without conditions; for the end of repressive measures against peaceful protests by human rights and democracy movements; for Cuba to respect its international commitments, such as the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on workers’ rights and the freedom to organise; and finally, for the state to recognise the legitimacy of an independent Cuban civil society. These are the demands we want to bring before the international community and EU member states.
You talk about political detention in Cuba. What’s the current situation?
ES: At last count [in February 2014] the number of political detainees in Cuba was 82. This number is actually relatively small compared to the thousands of political prisoners detained in the 1970s and 80s – at a time when I myself was jailed for eight years. Nonetheless, for a country like Cuba that’s not going through conflict or faced with political violence, it’s a big number. At the moment, the government is trying to keep the number of political detainees down to improve its image at the international level. What they tend to do is accuse political dissidents of having committed common law offenses, like “pre-criminal danger to society”. This “offense” carries a penalty of up to four years in prison for any person that is considered “socially dangerous”, even without having committed a crime. On top of that, in the last few years, the number of detentions of a few hours or days for political dissenters or human rights activists has increased: in 2013, our organisation counted more than 6,400 cases. This is what some journalists call “low-intensity political repression”.
What does your organisation do for detained people?
ES: We aim to help political prisoners as well as common law prisoners. We offer legal counsel to them and to their families, with a view to reclaiming their rights in a legal and peaceful way. We also have human rights observers in each province. The observers work with networks of voluntary informants – for example, the families and friends of prisoners – who provide us with information on arbitrary detentions.
In Cuba, more than 70,000 people are imprisoned in detention centres and in work camps. That’s comparable to the number of detainees in France, while Cuba has a population of only 11 million. Thousands of people are unjustly detained. We have been living under the same political system for 56 years. It’s a totalitarian system that consistently breaches human rights, be they civil, political, social or cultural. In fact, all 11 million of us are prisoners. This government has turned the whole of Cuba into an open-air prison.