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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

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.

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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)

Next Story

How Art is Reforming Prisoners, Giving Them Another Chance In Life

Among other works, deft illustrations and canvasses of Saraswati, Ganesha and Buddha now line the Tihar gallery walls, which can be accessed with permission. Programmes of yoga, dance and music also mark the prisoner's calendars now.

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Employing art and theatre as avenues for change, the two prisons are allowing creative freedom to prisoners in confinement. In return, the inmates also see it not just as a meaningful pastime, but a rehabilitative intervention and a possible vocation to take up after their jail term. Pixabay

One often thinks of Indian prisons as dingy, cramped cells with their mean and often dehumanised inmates waiting for redemption. So it comes as a surprise when a group of prisoners takes to stage and gets applauded for performing a play written by Rabindranath Tagore or when paintings made by inmates are appreciated by art connoisseurs and get sold at art exhibitions for thousands of rupees.

But isn’t that what prisons are supposed to be about? To reform those who committed mistakes in their lives and give them a second chance. Contrary to popular perception of prisons as violent spaces, two Indian prisons, Delhi’s Tihar Jail and West Bengal’s Berhampore Central Correction Home, are doing just that by encouraging healthy practices of painting, sketching and performing theatre for inmates who are prepared to lead a new life.

Employing art and theatre as avenues for change, the two prisons are allowing creative freedom to prisoners in confinement. In return, the inmates also see it not just as a meaningful pastime, but a rehabilitative intervention and a possible vocation to take up after their jail term.

Suraj Prakash, an art instructor from the College of Art, has been teaching Tihar (Jail 4) inmates every week since June 2017, after several inmates were spotted doing amateur sketching and painting by the jail administration.

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“Theatre is my weapon. It has transformed the lives of these people. They may have committed crimes, but the rehabilitation has been immensely successful.” Pixabay

“To encourage them, Superintendent Rajesh Chauhan contacted instructors to teach them. The group has now snowballed from a handful to around 200, and over 20 have mastered it in less than two years,” Prakash told IANS.

Equipped with an in-house art gallery now, the ‘Tihar School of Art’ has sold close to 60 artworks since its inception, and even garnered Rs 5-6 lakh. According to Prakash, half the money from each sale is deposited into the respective inmate’s account, and the rest goes into funding art activities.

A booth was dedicated to showing works of art by the inmates at the India Art Festival.

Among other works, deft illustrations and canvasses of Saraswati, Ganesha and Buddha now line the Tihar gallery walls, which can be accessed with permission. Programmes of yoga, dance and music also mark the prisoner’s calendars now.

The second initiative, tagged as theatre therapy, started when theatre director Pradip Bhattacharya ventured into the Berhampore prison for a jail performance in 2006 where he saw gender-segregated cells with low levels of literacy among inmates.

On a proposal by the prison’s Inspector General B.D. Sharma, Bhattacharya started working with the prisoners, many of whom were sentenced for life. What cemented their tie as director and actors was a meal he shared with them, which “changed their body language completely”.

“Theatre is my weapon. It has transformed the lives of these people. They may have committed crimes, but the rehabilitation has been immensely successful,” he told IANS.

While some prisoners were involved in land disputes, some were convicted for murder in a fit of anger. Bhattacharya said that they were not born criminals, but accidental ones, which is why their reform was easier.

A troupe of 26 actors from the Berhampore Repertory Theatre staged a play written by Rabindranath Tagore, “Jakshapuri (Raktakarabi)” on Thursday here, as part of a National School of Drama theatre fest. For Bhattacharya, who said Tagore was immediately relatable to the prisoners, understanding the cultural figure is not a matter of education.

“He is not a high-mounted photograph for them. He is their guru, Gurudev.”

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While some prisoners were involved in land disputes, some were convicted for murder in a fit of anger. Bhattacharya said that they were not born criminals, but accidental ones, which is why their reform was easier.
Pixabay

After staging over 50 shows of three Tagore productions in various locations across India, the troupe does plan on taking up theatre when they are free. “Theatre gives a peace of mind. I am relieved of all tensions when I act. I have found Bhattacharya, who is like my father,” inmate-actor Sapan Mehena told IANS.

Bhattacharya, who also proudly pointed to two prisoners who fell in love during the rehearsals, also said that many are also taking to education. Mehena, for instance, has completed class 10 in jail.

Buddhadev Meta, one of the main characters of the play, said: “When I was sentenced to life, there was a depressing darkness all around, and I thought to myself that my life is over, but when the director encouraged us to do theatre, it was a new platform for living life altogether. I don’t want to lose it now.”

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Meta, who also found his partner in a co-prisoner who played the protagonist Nandini, said that he has found his “sansar” (world), and for earning livelihood, Bhattacharya has given him a new avenue. He proudly added that he wants to continue with theatre even after he is free.

Meta also said that he is learning a few words of English, and his Bengali is now “completely clear”, owing to theatre rehearsals. (IANS)