March 2014 Meeting with Sue Bingham on Cuba

Our March 2014 meeting was well attended. Our speaker Sue Bingham, Amnesty's country coordinator for Cuba, brought us up to date with recent developments in Cuba,  some of which are positive in terms of improving the very poor living standards and income of the majority of ordinary people, and others which are a cause for concern in relation to their human rights.

Sue described progress in the sense that since 2008 self employment has  become legal, people may now sell their property and own cars and mobile phones. Yet, there are problems and there have been anti-government protests with people complaining that an open market is not wholly permitted.

There has also been a phasing out of  the dual economy which differentiates between one currency used by the Cuban people and another which is for tourists only.  Rationing is still in place, but many everyday items such as soap and antiseptic creams are no longer rationed but therefore more difficult and expensive to obtain.

The internet is now accessible, but only to the few in state controlled cafes where it is prohibitively expensive, or to state employees in organisations where computers may be used.

Other economic developments include the possible introduction of a new foreign investment law and an attempt to encourage foreign trade with Cuba.

Sue pointed out that, inexplicably, although the US embargo still is in place, nevertheless other countries still do provide food and other goods.

Because general dissatisfaction with the rate and consistency of change has sparked complaints and even anti-government demonstrations, there has been a consequent crack down on freedom of expression, association and assembly and dissidents are frequently harassed or arrested and charged with 'dangerousness,' even if they are only thought to be likely to commit some kind of crime against the state. Human rights defenders are especially vulnerable to such harsh punishments, as are black people and women.

We also heard that  there have been changes to the migration law so that now Cubans no longer need to have exit visas to leave the country. This has had a huge impact and now many people, especially young adults, are leaving and choosing not to return and this, of course, is of enormous concern to the government of an ageing population.

Sue told us that in 2013 at the UN Universal Periodic Review, 292 recommendations (some recurring) were made by other countries as to how Cuba could improve human rights for its people. Some of these have been adopted but many are still outstanding, mainly those concerned with freedom of expression, association and assembly. UK recommendations relate particularly to issues around freedom of expression and reforms to the judicial system. We heard that, although there have been no prisoners remanded to death row since 2010, the government is nevertheless reluctant to abolish the death penalty.

Overall, what we heard from Sue was a very mixed picture with some positives but also a number of serious concerns which are unlikely to be visible to the ordinary tourist.

She ended her fascinating and detailed account by telling us little about the Miami Five and the current campaign to bring justice and freedom for the three men who still remain in prison in the US.

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