By Evan Wilson

Raul Castro

It has been nearly three and a half years since Fidel Castro first delegated his powers to his brother, First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party Raúl Castro. Though initially temporary, the transfer of power became permanent in February 2008 when Raúl Castro officially became President of Cuba. The new President Castro began his tenure with some welcome reforms, such as allowing greater cell phone use, permitting the purchase of consumer electronics, and allocating unused government land for private use. While these reforms have given previously unheard-of freedoms to the people of Cuba, they do not address the greater human rights issues endemic to the country. One major reform now possible for Cuba is to join the Inter-American Human Rights system. The General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) passed a resolution in June 2009, lifting the 47-year-old ban on Cuba’s participation and allowing Cuba to begin the process of becoming a fully functioning member state. With no outside venue for addressing human rights violations in Cuba, full membership in the OAS would allow its citizens access to at least one level of supranational review, the Inter-American human rights system.

Over seven months have passed since the General Assembly removed the ban, and Cuba has made no sign of interest in participating in the OAS. Further, after two years of Raúl Castro’s administration, it is ever clearer what the future of human rights in Cuba will be under his rule. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCHRNR) issued their 2009 reports on the state of human rights in Cuba. Both reports note that the number of political dissidents imprisoned in the country has fallen over the past two years, from nearly 300 to just above 200 today. The reports also note that the number of people on death row in Cuba has dropped sharply. Still, as the reported number of jailed dissidents falls, the reported incidents of harassment and abuse continue to rise. The HRW report directly criticizes Raúl Castro’s continuation of his brother’s policies: “The government continues to enforce political conformity using criminal prosecutions, long- and short-term detentions, mob harassment, surveillance, police warnings, and travel restrictions.”

The arrest of human rights activist Jorge Luís García Pérez, best known as “Antúnez,” and his wife on January 19, 2010 while they were working to organize an independent library in Santiago de Cuba province is a reminder of the continued repressive tactics of Castro’s Cuba. Antúnez and his wife were released on January 21 without any formal charges filed against them. Antúnez has been detained briefly many times since his release from prison in April 2007 after 17 years as a political prisoner. Such treatment begs the question of whether short detentions will replace long ones as the new Castro regime’s harassment of choice. Furthermore, with no venue like the Inter-American system to challenge such treatment, Antúnez has little legal recourse.

Time will reveal whether Raúl Castro plans to depart from more of his brother’s old ways. For the present, however, within HRW and CCHRNR any optimism has evaporated that surrounded Raúl Castro’s rise to power. There is also little hope that Cuba will join the OAS any time soon. While the tactics for silencing political dissidents in Cuba may change from long-term imprisonment to harassment and short-term detention, the goal will still be the same. Political dissent is prohibited in Cuba, whether it is in the form of an independent library or even rock music. Still, if Castro is willing to move away from long-term detentions and capital punishment, there is some hope that the consequences for political activism in Cuba may be less severe in the future. Finally, if Cuba were to join the OAS, activists like Antúnez would be given legal voice where one is needed most. Whatever Raúl Castro may say publicly about Cuba fully participating in the OAS, the international community should not abandon the effort of pressuring Cuba to do so in reality. At the very least, thanks to the General Assembly’s Resolution, the choice is now Cuba’s to make.