Change slow in Cuba

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

JEB SHARP: I'm Jeb Sharp. This is The World. The Obama administration has taken tentative steps to open a dialogue with Cuba's Communist government. It's small stuff so far, like talks about resuming routine postal services, but the idea is to engage Cuba little by little to encourage reform from within. Cuban President Raul Castro has talked a lot about reform since taking over from his brother Fidel in 2006. But nothing much has changed yet, according to a new report today from Human Rights Watch. The report documents how there is still no real space for dissent in Cuba. The lead researcher in that report is Nik Steinberg, and he's on the line now from Washington. Nik, your report is entitled �New Castro, Same Cuba�, which seems telling. What did you find?

NIK STEINBERG: Cuba continues to be a place where any political dissent is repressed aggressively by the government. The Cuba's repressive machinery that was built over nearly five decades by Fidel Castro has been kept firmly in place and fully active by his brother Raul.

SHARP: Well let's get a bit more specific. One unique law that deals with dissent is called the dangerousness law. What is that?

STEINBERG: The dangerousness law is a law that allows the Cuban government to sentence people before they have committed any crime, on the suspicion that they might commit an offense in the future.

SHARP: And what sort of things were considered evidence of dangerousness?

STEINBERG: One of the cases we opened the report with is a man who in December 2006 decided to set out on a march across Cuba, from the Eastern end of Cuba to the Western end of Cuba with his wife and daughter. The set out from Santiago, Cuba and they made it as far as Holguin, which is not very far, before they were attacked by large mobs, detained by police, and sent back home to Las [PH] Dunas. They started the march several more times. Eventually, a man whose name is Ramon [PH] Velasquez Dolanzo was sentenced under the dangerousness law to three years in jail.

SHARP: Now how did you gather these stories? How did you operate there, and how did you come across each individual case?

STEINBERG: Well Cuba is a closed society, which means that from the start we had a very difficult time in building trust from a distance, because to speak to an outsider in Cuba about Human Rights, you truly put yourself at risk of being imprisoned. So we began by doing about five to six months of interviews over the phone with people in Cuba, and one person would put us in touch with another and say that we were trust worthy, and that was how we built a web of connections there. And then we decided that we were going to undertake a fact-finding mission to the island. Our highest priority was to ensure that we wouldn't put anyone that we met with at greater risk. So the people that we targeted for our interviews were people who are not high level dissidents who are under surveillance by the government. They didn't know that we were coming before we visited, and we went to Cuba, rented a car, and drove across the island meeting with these people in their homes.

SHARP: Now aside from the individual cases you've already mentioned, can you give us a sense of the general atmosphere, and especially since you've been and you've talked to people as you went about the island. I mean what does it feel like there?

STEINBERG: One of the things that we talk about in this report is a climate of fear that really pervades Cuban society. The government is very clear about what the consequences are going to be for people that act out. We've talked about the dangerousness law, but in fact the criminal code in Cuba is full of laws that allow the government to punish dissent. And aside from the criminal code, there are a range of oppressive actions that the government can employ at any minute to punish people who dare to criticize it. So you can be fired from your job; your children can be kicked out of school; you can be subjected to what's called [PH] Octus Therpuelo, when people gather outside your home, throw stones, threaten you, possibly attack you when you come out, all under the guise of being counter-revolutionaries. Of being a threat to the Cuban government. So I think that when we were in Cuba, one of the things that you can feel when you visit someone who is under the thumb of the government, is you can feel in their presence the fear that they have.

SHARP: Nik Steinberg, the Cuban government says these measures are necessary because of the US policy of regime change. What do you make of that? How do you respond to that?

STEINBERG: The cases that we document in the report leave no doubt that the people who are being targeted are not agents of the US government. We think that the evidence speaks pretty clearly to the fact that the people who are being punished are not agents and don't pose an imminent threat to the safety of the Castro government, but in fact are just advocating for the rights that any people should have.

SHARP: Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch. Thanks so much.

STEINBERG: Thank you.