Excellent editorial from the Miami Herald by Mauricio Claver-Carone, a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC in Washington, D.C.:
In 1975, leaders from 35 countries — including the United States, Canada and most of Europe — gathered in Helsinki to sign the ”Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.” Article VII of that Helsinki Accord pledged each country to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.”
Earlier this month, government officials and nongovernmental organizations from many of those same countries gathered with Cuban opposition leaders at a conference in South Florida to discuss the relevance of similar principles for neighboring Cuba, only to earn a scathing editorial attack from the ruling Communist Party newspaper, Granma.
”There is no space for the dreams of adversaries, internal mercenaries and fifth columnists,” reads the editorial.
Granted that signatories from the former Soviet bloc had no intention of honoring the ”dreams” of Article VII over three decades ago either. At the time, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev dismissed the human rights provisions as ”rhetorical” and not binding. The Soviets signed asserting the document’s overarching security and disarmament provisions, which they believed would further strengthen and legitimize their dominance of Eastern Europe.
Absent any enforcement, it was left to a small band of democracy advocates, writers and critics who came to be known as ”dissidents” to promote the Helsinki Accord’s human-rights provisions and to ensure that those rights were not lost in the red-tape and bureaucratic inertia that so often envelops international diplomacy.
A year after the accord was signed, the Moscow Helsinki Group was established. It consisted of 12 diverse men and women dedicated to pressuring the leadership of the Soviet Union to implement the human rights commitment. The group inspired like-minded dissidents in Eastern Europe, beginning with Czechoslovakia and, in 1977, Poland. The dissidents believed that the Helsinki Accords empowered them to challenge injustice.
Through years of repression, imprisonment, discrimination and forced exile, these human rights movements evolved into political-opposition movements and served as catalysts to the liberating events that culminated within the next decade.
Much has been reported about the Cuban regime recently signing both the U.N. Covenant on Political and Civil Rights and another on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The first reaffirms such basic freedoms as the right to assemble peacefully, to practice one’s religion, to equal protection of the law, to privacy and to leave one’s country and return to it. The economic covenant requires signatories to ensure fair wages and the freedom to form and join independent trade unions. Cuba’s single-party, totalitarian, communist state, not only signed the covenants; it proclaimed itself to already be in compliance. All but the politically naive find this claim of compliance to be laughable.
The international community has repeatedly denounced Cuba for its continued abuse of human rights. Unfortunately the United Nations has already up-ended the credibility of its own covenants by allowing Cuba and other notorious violators of human rights to sit on its Human Rights Council, a weak and dysfunctional enforcement agency.
So where — if anywhere — lies Cuba’s Helsinki? Perhaps we need not look so far.
After decades of civil wars and strife, the 21st century began with 34 out of 35 countries in the Western Hemisphere enjoying the freedoms that multiparty democracies foster. Cuba remains the exception. To strengthen democratic institutions, the hemisphere’s democracies adopted the Inter-American Democratic Charter during a 2001 summit in Lima. The charter encapsulates the conviction that freedom and representative democracy should be preconditions for political and economic engagement.
Failure of the region to enforce that principle would threaten to reopen an all-too-familiar door to authoritarianism throughout the hemisphere. While the Castro brothers were juggling titles, the general secretary of the Organization of American States — under whose auspices the charter was signed — failed to promote, or even spotlight, the need for Cuba’s ”new” regime to open its tightly shut door to representative democracy.
Because the OAS missed its opportunity, the burden of challenging repression in Cuba remains regrettably and squarely on the shoulders of Cuba’s embattled dissidents, just as — years ago — the burden was on the dissidents of the former Soviet bloc. It is a heavy burden for people to bear alone.
Central and Eastern Europeans have proven the Helsinki Accord to be a historic beacon of hope, freedom and enlightenment. In the Western Hemisphere, it behooves the countries that signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter to hold up their own beacon of hope to the oppressed who need it most — namely, the Cuban people.