Human Rights and Power Politics

Karen Lee Wald
Geneva, Switzerland

April 20, 2001 

The United States has once again secured a questionable vote against the island nation of Cuba at the UN Human Rights Commission session held each year in Geneva. But the vote is far less than the outright condemnation that the Bush administration would like to have obtained against one of the last remaining governments to thumb its nose at the Colossus of the North.

The results are less than clear for several reasons. First, although the US-inspired, Czech-proposed resolution criticizing restrictions of political liberties in Cuba squeaked by with a vote of 22-20, ten other countries abstained, and the Congo representative didn't appear for the vote. Which means that despite its all-out, no-holds-barred effort to force every member country of the HRC to vote its way, the US essentially lost, 30-20. Abstentions in the HRC are rarely signs of indifference or perplexity. Countries abstain when they oppose a resolution but can’t stand up to the pressure of the United States, or have some other political or economic reasons preventing them from voting their conscience.

Second, even if the US HAD secured an overwhelming majority of the votes, the very fact that it had to resort to immense pressure to get other governments to vote its way is an indication in itself that those nations are not really convinced that Cuba is the type of “gross human rights violator” whose case should come to the attention of the Commission. If they were, no arm-twisting (or more accurately, threats of arm-breaking, or knee-capping) would be necessary.

And the US pulled no stops in its yearly effort to brand the Western hemisphere’s lone socialist government a “violator” of human rights. George W. Bush personally called every Latin American president, Secretary of State and former General Colin Powell called each and every one of his counterparts, and Jesse Helms added his two cents with an unprecedented trip to Mexico, one of the hold-out countries. The implications of Powell’s direct involvement were not lost on small Third World countries who remember too well his military devastation of Iraq, followed by the long, death-dealing economic sanctions against that country. Bullying is the name of the game.

The United States’ attempt to demonize Cuba by labeling it a rights violator at the HRC has a long history, beginning in 1988, when Ronald Reagan was president and former CIA director George Bush was Vice President. But their efforts were halted that year by India, which successfully proposed tabling both the US’ resolution against Cuba and the Cuban resolution condemning the United States’ multiple and far more devastating human rights violations.

The Reagan-Bush administration came back the next year with a vengeance. It appointed Armando Valladares as US ambassador to the HRC, and sent both Reagan’s daughter Maureen and retired General Vernon Walters, then US ambassador to the UN, to carry the message that everyone better vote for the US resolution – or else.

Armando Valladares – the only national representative at the hearings who was unable to speak the language of the country he represented – had been freed a few years earlier from a Cuban prison, where he’d languished after being tried and convicted of participating in a counterrevolutionary gang that carried out terrorist bombings in the early years of the revolution. After a long campaign to free the former Batista-era policeman convinced many people around the world that the man was a “poet” who had been “paralyzed from the waist down” as a result of “mistreatment in Cuban jails”, Cuba acceded to the wishes of then-French President Francois Mitterand, and sent the hale-and-hearty Valladares to France. There he embarrassed his supporters waiting at the airport with a wheelchair by bounding off the airplane on his own two very-able feet.

Needless to say he never wrote another poem after he was freed. But an apparently ghost-written book distributed by the US Information Service, alleging years of torture and abuse in Cuban prisons, circles the globe. So Armando Valladares was a feature attraction when he appeared in Geneva at the Human Rights Commission hearings.

Whatever good impression his written tales of woe had won him dissipated quickly by the ex-policeman’s lack of diplomatic finesse. His heavy-handedness in ordering other countries – even the Western allies of the US – to vote as his newly-adopted government wished produced more than a few ruffled feelings. Valladares stated specifically at a meeting of the “Western bloc” of HRC nations that a vote against the resolution condemning Cuba would be considered a “vote against the United States”, one that would personally offend President Reagan. And in case anyone missed the point, he reminded them what had happened to India “after last year’s ploy”. (The US pulled back on massive purchases and credits to that nation, an economic reprisal India could ill afford.)

When the ex-cops diplomatic skills seemed sadly inadequate (many multilingual diplomats laughed at the fact that Valladares needed a translator to consult with his own delegation, and some Western diplomats were overheard complaining that he was treating them like “banana republics” by ordering them around rather than cajoling and using polite euphemisms), the US sent in the “big guns” in the person of Vernon Walters.

To understand the implications of Walters’ presence at the hearings (and its parallel to using Colin Powell to perform a similar role this year), we need to recall the history of this big bulk of a man. Called the “harbinger of coups” and “America’s foremost coup-maker”, the former general and deputy director of the CIA (under George Bush) had been leaving swathes of dead bodies and mangled democracies in his wake from Vietnam’s Operation Phoenix to Brazil’s installation of military men to replace the democratically elected Joao Goulart, from the placing in power of the Shah of Iran to an attempted coup in the Fiji Islands following close on the heels of a Vernon Walters visit. 1976 -- the last year he and George Bush Sr. shared the leadership of the CIA – was arguably one of that agencies bloodiest. It was the year of the car-bomb assassination of Chile’s former foreign minister, Orlando Letelier, in the heart of downtown Washington, DC. It was the year of the mid-flight bombing of a Cuban airplane that took the lives of all 73 passengers and crew, including the mostly-teenage Junior Fencing Team. Actions for which CIA operatives were caught, tried, but eventually released with little or no punishment. It was also the year a coup brought Argentina’s General Jorge Videla to power, initiating the “Dirty War” that led to tens of thousands of murdered and disappeared citizens and the kidnapping of the victims children, who were to be raised by families chosen by their killers. (In Buenos Aires” Plaza de Mayo, the anguished mothers and grandmothers of some of these disappeared children still march around the Plaza every Thursday, seeking information as to their whereabouts that is still being denied to them -- a prolonged form of psychological torture.)

None of this led the United States to condemn these regimes for human rights violations. Even when Pinochet’s military police set fire to a young Chilean man and woman in 1986, beating them while burning them alive in front of horrified witnesses, and then leaving them for dead in a roadside ditch, the US maintained a “hands-off” policy when it came to criticizing the abuses of its hand-picked dictators.

Nor was this lost on the people who filled the hall where the Human Rights Commission conducts its hearings as the US ambassador strode down the aisle of the horseshoe-shaped meeting room in 1988. All the buzz and murmur that normally filled the air ceased. Dead silence. You could hear a pin drop. The awe produced by blunt power, wielded by men with no conscience and no hesitation to use it.

The United States didn’t get its way that year. Although some countries could be intimidated into voting for the US resolution, and others forced to abstain, there was still a Socialist bloc and a strong contingent of non-aligned countries willing to stand up to US bullying. Cuba pulled the rug out from under the US resolution by INVITING the Human Rights Commission to come to Cuba as its guest and see for themselves. The US resolution went down to defeat that year.

But with the disappearance and realignment of the Eastern European countries that formerly called themselves socialist, the US has acquired new allies and the poorer, weaker countries have become more isolated in their attempts to stand up against what everyone knows is the United States’ vendetta against Fidel Castro. “We don’t need a DNA test to tell us who the father of this resolution is”, the Cuban government remarked the other day.

But while the US can make its threats effective in producing the votes it wants, it can’t keep the fact a secret. The whirlwind of activities to pressure countries to vote its way – something that brought public thanks from rightwing Miami Cuban Congress members for Bush and Powell’s efforts – may have had a boomerang effect. More than one commentator has noted that if other countries were convinced Cuba actually was a gross violator of human rights, all that public and private pressure would not have been necessary. And certainly Cuba came out on the moral high ground when it was revealed that among the political and economic clubs wielded was the threat to cut-off newly approved financial aid for African countries devastated by the AIDS epidemic. Even if winning 22 of the Commission’s 53 votes could be considered a “victory” for the US (which will promptly forget the circumstances and henceforth announce that Cuba has been “condemned” by the HRC, as it has done in the past), the bad taste it has left in the mouths of most who participated in or observed this yearly ritual seems to outbalance the vote count.

But then, the United States has never been overly concerned with world opinion, except to the extent it could manipulate it.