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Turning Point for Human Rights? Passing of Cuban PM Fidel Castro can be the Beginning of Hope for People who Suffered under him, feel Cuban Americans

The primary objective of the Cuban regime today is the preservation of power as long as possible

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People place candles beside a picture of Fidel Castro, as part of a tribute, following the announcement of the death of the Cuban revolutionary leader, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Nov. 26, 2016. VOA
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Nov 27, 2016: Six decades after declaring history would absolve him, Fidel Castro’s life has ended and his troubled human rights legacy can be considered.

Cuban-Americans took to the streets of Little Havana on Saturday, saying the passing of one man could be the beginning of hope for the many who had suffered under him.

“A bad dictator that had Cuba under oppression and repression for almost six decades is no longer with us, and that will give an opportunity to the Cuban people to start the journey to freedom and democracy,” Cuban-American Jose Sanchez told VOA as he celebrated with hundreds of other Cuban-Americans in Miami.

[bctt tweet=”The primary objective of the Cuban regime today is the preservation of power as long as possible.” username=””]

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Under Castro’s rule, three generations of Cuban people lacked nearly all basic civil and political freedoms, including the rights to expression, assembly and association. The communist government routinely detained journalists and dissenters while denying independent human rights monitoring organizations access inside the country.

“This is a man who is deeply admired in the rest of the region for standing up to the United States,” said Eduardo Gamarra, professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University. “But at the same time, and it’s very important to remember, he also presided over a tyrannical regime, a regime that was responsible for the deaths by firing squad of hundreds of people and somebody who jailed people for their political views.”

FILE - U.S. and Cuban flags hang on a wall at the U.S pavilion during the Havana International Fair, Havana, Cuba, Nov. 2, 2015. VOA
FILE – U.S. and Cuban flags hang on a wall at the U.S pavilion during the Havana International Fair, Havana, Cuba, Nov. 2, 2015. VOA

U.S.-Cuba relations

Even the restoration of relations with the United States, starting in December 2014, didn’t loosen limitations on freedoms.

According to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report, internet access in Cuba was still severely limited despite the opening of 35 Wi-Fi hotspots nationwide, and the government continued to control nearly all media outlets. The number of jailed dissidents remained consistent at between 8,000 and 9,000 prisoners each year.

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Now it will be up to Raul Castro, who had gradually taken over control of the communist island nation starting in 2006, to decide whether his brother’s death marks the end of an era.

“The symbol is dead,” Guadalupe Correa Cabrera, professor of public affairs and security studies at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, said of Castro’s death.

Cabrera said Raul Castro’s control over the country had already opened the door for normalization of relations with the United States, and with the death of Fidel marking the end of an era, even more opportunities could arise.

“He needs to change his approach and allow the country to be more open,” Cabrera said.

FILE - Berta Soler, leader of The Ladies in White, an opposition group, is detained by Cuban security personnel after a weekly anti-government protest march, in Havana, Sept. 13, 2015. VOA
FILE – Berta Soler, leader of The Ladies in White, an opposition group, is detained by Cuban security personnel after a weekly anti-government protest march, in Havana, Sept. 13, 2015. VOA

Human rights

Human rights concerns have long shaped U.S. relations with Cuba, playing an often crucial role in presidential politics. In the hours after Castro’s death, many U.S. lawmakers took to Twitter to recall Castro’s legacy and express the hope his passing would begin a new chapter for the country.

“While some may wish to paint a rosy picture of communism and this dictator’s leadership, any account that ignores his bloody atrocities and human rights abuses, economic persecution and support for terrorism abroad does no justice to the survivors and victims of his legacy,” U.S. Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee on foreign affairs, said in a statement released Saturday.

Even as the aging leader slipped from public view, the memory of his rule remained alive in the minds of the generations he marked — a psychological toll that could have very real consequences as the nation moves forward.

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“We knew that as long as the dictator who founded the Cuban revolution was alive and in Cuba, change would be very difficult. But now this represents an opportunity — especially for those freedom fighters in Cuba, the opposition leaders who have been risking their lives, their security, their well-being, for years to fight for a better country. Now they’re going to be stronger,” U.S. Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida told VOA.

But change in the wake of Castro’s death could come at a steep cost, exacted by the communist government still in place.

“The primary objective of the Cuban regime today is the preservation of power as long as possible, and while dissidents still have the potential to create the kind of unrest that might unsettle a Cuban leadership, they’ll continue to repress,” said Brian Fonseca, director at Florida International University’s Public Policy Institute.

FILE - A young woman walks near graffiti that reads "Freedom" in Havana, Feb. 21, 2016. VOA
FILE – A young woman walks near graffiti that reads “Freedom” in Havana, Feb. 21, 2016. VOA

Create ‘fissures’

“If the social fissures sort of begin to manifest because of changes in the emotional temper of the Cuban people, and if that does occur, given that preservation of power is most critical to the Cuban political elite, then I think you may find political repression going up, at least in the short term,” Fonseca said.

Back in the streets of Little Havana, many realized the end of the era of Castro is in many ways just the beginning.

“We’re here honoring all our grandparents and that entire generation that wasn’t here to experience it today, but for them we’re here, and hopefully this is the beginning of freedom for Cuba,” said Lissette Calderon, a Cuban-American woman who has never set foot on the island but brought her children out to witness the historic moment.

“The people of Cuba do not have free elections; there’s no democracy. I think those of us aren’t going to rest until we see freedom for the people of Cuba,” Calderon said. (VOA)

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The Attention Shifts To The U.S. As It Strikes Down FGM Law

Looking beyond the Michigan case, Jones said the key to stopping FGM isn’t just legislation but also education.

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FILE - A T-shirt warns against female genital mutilation. Its wearer attends an event, discouraging harmful practices such as FGM, at a girls high school in Imbirikani, Kenya, April 21, 2016.Image source: VOA

When a U.S. district judge last month ruled a federal ban on female genital mutilation unconstitutional, he undercut the federal government and alarmed anti-FGM activists, who hope to eradicate the practice.

The World Health Organization calls FGM, also known as female circumcision, a human rights violation of women and girls, with no health benefits.

Some 200 million women and girls around the world, mainly in Africa, have experienced FGM, the WHO says.

In his opinion, Judge Bernard Friedman called FGM “despicable,” but also “a local criminal activity” that must be addressed at the state level. In enacting a federal law, he said, Congress overstepped.

Now, local lawmakers, advocates and newspapers are calling for state bans that equal or surpass the scope of the federal law that was struck down.

Female Genital Mutilation, FGM, judge
A badge reads “The power of labor against FGM” is seen on a volunteer during a conference on International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 6, 2018. (VOA)

‘Never again’

The case Friedman ruled on centers around Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, an emergency room physician accused of performing FGM on at least 100 girls in Michigan for more than a decade.

Prosecutors have focused their case on nine girls, aged 7 to 12, from three states. The girls allegedly were subjected to FGM with the aid of Nagarwala and seven others, including the girls’ mothers.

Defense attorneys say the procedure amounted to only a “nick” on the girls performed as part of a religious ritual — not FGM. But they also argued in July that the federal law banning FGM is unconstitutional.

State Senator Rick Jones, who represents Michigan’s 24th district, told VOA by phone that he was shocked to learn about Nagarwala’s case and strongly disagrees with Friedman’s ruling.

Last year, Jones became the spokesperson for a package of bills outlawing FGM statewide. The legislation passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Female Circumcision, FGM
The barbaric practice of genitalia mutilation has been banned in developed nations. Wikimedia

Now, Michigan has some of the toughest FGM laws in the country.

Health-care providers convicted of performing FGM face up to 15 years in prison, along with the permanent loss of their medical licenses. Parents who take their daughters to doctors to be cut can lose custody.

The 1996 federal law, meanwhile, stipulated up to five years in prison and fines for medical providers who perform FGM.

“We wanted to send a strong message around the world: Never again bring your girls to Michigan for this horrible procedure,” Jones said.

Across the U.S., 27 states have passed laws banning FGM, many of which have been written in recent years and include penalties that go beyond the federal law, which also criminalizes so-called “vacation cutting,” the practice of taking girls out of the United States to have FGM performed overseas.

News organizations are among those pushing for an expansion of state laws. Last month, the Seattle Times editorial board called for a ban in Washington, one of 23 states yet to outlaw FGM.

FGM
A doctor checks her phone as she poses for a photograph in Mumbai, India, June 8, 2016. The 50-year-old woman defends what is widely considered female genital mutilation within her small, prosperous Dawoodi Bohra community in India. VOA

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times editorial board said all 50 states should ban the “barbaric” practice, in light of Friedman’s ruling.

Religious ritual?

The health-care providers and families involved in the Michigan case belong to Dawoodi Bohra, a Shi’ite Muslim sect based in India with about 2 million followers worldwide.

According to a study published earlier this year, FGM, called khafd in Dawoodi Bohra communities, is widespread in the sect and involves cutting the clitoral hood or part of the clitoris, without an anesthetic, when girls turn seven.

The study, commissioned by WeSpeakOut, an advocacy group focused on eradicating khafd, also found that three-quarters of Dawoodi Bohra women have experienced FGM.

The severity and nature of FGM can vary.

Health-care providers have identified four types of FGM. Khafd involves Type 1 FGM. Other types involve removing all of the external genitalia and narrowing the vaginal opening.

Jones rejects the idea that there’s a religious basis for the procedure, however it’s performed.