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Featured Columnist: Karen Wald

From: Karen Wald
Subject: Human Rights as Theatre --then and now
Date: Wed, 4 Jun 2003 15:14:54 -0700

When the UN's Human Rights Commission was meeting a few months ago, and the White House and corporate press was screaming once again about "human rights abuses in Cuba" that they habitually ignore anyplace else in the world, I was desperately looking for this article I wrote in 1989, after attending the Human Rights Commission in Geneva that year and getting a taste of what that forum is really all about.

Since that time, the US has become, if anything, even more flagrant: whenever the rebellious countries that comprise the United Nations Organization fail to toe the line drawn by the US, Washington simple cuts off funds. The UN is used to legitimize the most atrocious illegal actions carried out by the US, and when it doesn't the US government and media just ignore it. Because the close-up picture it gives of the workings of the UN is still as relevant today as it was over a decade ago, I wanted to re-distribute the article. But even more important, I wanted to once again publish the words of the Mexican Ambassador to the UN, Claude Heller, who chastised the US for constantly insisting on a resolution against Cuba, to the exclusion of all other issues more appropriately brought before the Commission. It wasn't that Heller was saying Cuba is perfect, but simply that the UN HRC was not set up to analyze the human rights situation in each and every country in the world. It's purpose, he noted, was to denounce and attempt to bring about changes in those countries where there existed massive, systematic, gross violations of human rights. And Cuba, whatever its shortcomings, simply never fit that category. Never even came close.

It still doesn't today -- which is why many people were shocked at the ease with which a number of liberal-minded individuals were stampeded into signing public letters and statements condemning recent actions Cuba took in an attempt to slow down the United States' ongoing efforts to overthrow the revolutionary government there. Express to Cuba our concern over the death penalty? Of course -- many of us have been doing that for years -- and apparently with some effect until the recent spate of terrorist hijackings. Go on record in the capitalist media telling Cuba it had no right to follow its own laws aimed at preserving the gains of the Revolution? That seems way beyond the pale, when there are so many countries (not the least of which, our own) whose offenses are so far greater. Why single Cuba out for criticism for so much more minor offenses than those committed in the rest of the world? Because we think it should be perfect, because it's all we've got? In any case, it reminded me of the debate at the UN HRC in 1989, so with the help of Walter Lippmann, I finally have that original article for you to read and pass on if you wish.


By Karen Lee Wald,
Z-magazine (1989)

He's six foot one and 240 lbs, and his mane of white hair and double chins add rather than detract from the impressiveness of his bulk. But in Geneva, its not his size that people are talking about when they say Vernon Walters throws his weight around. Nor is his renowned fluency in many languages what made every voice hush when the US Ambassador to the United Nations took the microphone at the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Commission. There was no drama to his presentation, nothing new in the content. Yet in the large, circular ampitheatre where motion is constant and the hum of voices makes earphones necessary even when someone is speaking your own language, nobody moved, and you could have heard the proverbial pin drop, the entire time he spoke.

"What you're witnessing is the recognition of sheer power" an NGO whispered softly in my ear, with a combination of resentment and awe. The NGOs (both UN-recognized Non-Governmental Organizations and their individual reps are usually referred to this way), are the back- bone, many say, of the United Nations; the people who provide most of the raw data for the Human Rights Commission. They include religious groups of every denomination, human rights organizations, legal associations, indigenous peoples, peace groups. Their function is to present information, and to lobby the 43 member nations of the HRC to take action on behalf of the victims of the abuses they are denouncing. The NGOs are simultaneously the most influential and least powerful people in the six-week stage production held each year by the Human Rights Commission. Everyone else represents a government, whether as member or observer, and therefore has a higher status. But the NGO's are the people on the scene in every theatre of conflict; the ones gathering information, running off dozens of copies of their reports, cornering the official delegates, beseeching, imploring, haranguing, convincing. It was to them I turned when I arrived in Geneva, a stranger and a rookie, for information and, more important, to learn who the players were and how the game is played.

"HUMAN RIGHTS IS NOT INTERNATIONAL THEATRE, IT IS INTERNATIONAL LAW," declared Robert Cruz, reading a statement prepared by the International Tribal Treaty Council. "Human rights is not a vote to be bought or sold." But that is wishful thinking; a reflection of the way things should be, not the way they are. Theatre is the name of the game in Geneva. Nothing more clearly describes what goes on at these sessions --despite the sincerity, dedication, and sacrifices of many of those involved. And also despite these efforts, votes are constantly being bought and sold: through political pressure, bribes, blackmail, trade- offs. Nowhere was this more evident than in the US-Cuba confrontation which dominated the media coverage, if not the actual procedures of the Commission for the last three weeks of the session.

Some say the US made such a big issue over Cuba because Ronald Reagan is obsessed with Fidel Castro and his mini-"Evil Empire". The US needs to discredit the Cuban Revolution, they say, to keep other countries from wanting to follow in its path, and to justify to the American people its policy of intervening throughout Latin America. Up until now, it has been sufficient pretext to say that Cuba is arming or threatening a given country, or that the country in question is going to "become another Cuba", to justify any form of intervention. To make that justification viable, Cuba must continue to be seen in American eyes as something truly evil. Others who are skeptical of US motives for trying to castigate Cuba suggest that Washington regularly tries to divert attention from its own miserable human rights record in international forums by placing a socialist and revolutionary country in the spotlight. A more thoughtful analysis --not exclusive of the preceding explanations -- focuses on the definition and emphasis placed by different countries on the concept of human rights.

The US champions (if at all) civil and political rights; individual liberties such as freedom of speech and press. It opposes on principle the definition favored in the Third World and championed by Cuba, that includes and emphasizes economic and social (welfare) rights.

For whatever reason, the US delegation came to Geneva armed with one and only one resolution: L26, aimed at securing an HRC investigation of Cuba as a violator of human rights. Although couched in the mildest of language (in an attempt to assure its passage among countries that did not believe any of the extreme tales told about Cuba in the previous year's session), such a resolution would have placed Cuba in the category of the worst rights violators in the world, since the Commission only sends rapporteurs or investigating teams to a small handful of countries.

The disproportionate nature of the US' exclusive focus can be better appreciated when one realizes that the US delegation did not even VOTE FOR, let alone sponsor, most of the Commission's resolutions condemning the gross violations of human rights in other parts of the world, or even milder resolutions calling for respect for indigenous peoples' treaty rights.

Cuba, it should be pointed out, would not normally have even been a topic before the Commission were it not for Ronald Reagan's obsession with that little island nation. Not that the Cuban government is an absolute paragon of virtue in terms of its prisons, courtroom procedures, and the freedoms civil libertarians hold dearest: those incorporated in the First Amendment to our own Constitution.

But neither does revolutionary Cuba come close to ranking among the top five, ten or 15 human rights' abusers in the world. The primary slots this year [1989] were reserved for South Africa, Chile, El Salvador, Israel, Iran, and Afghanistan.

Cuba doesn't even hold a secondary position among countries most denounced by other member nations and NGOs. Among the countries whose situations aroused most concern you would have to count Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti, Paraguay, Sri Lanka, Cypress. Until the Reagan administration decided to make it an issue last year, Cuba simply wasn't part of the debate.

There are reasons why Cuba would not normally be included in this debate. Its imperfections just aren't serious enough. Whatever the limitation on freedom of expression for opponents of the Revolution living inside Cuba, certain facts are clear: unlike in South Africa, a significant portion of the population is not relegated to second or third class citizenship, economic deprivation, social ostracism based on race or color.

Unlike in Chile, El Salvador and other past and present military- dominated Latin American regimes, people are not "disappeared" from their homes; tortured and disfigured cadavers are not found on public roadways as a warning to the rest of the population to keep silent.

There is not (and has not been for over two decades) any major civil strife; no armed bands fighting the government, no massive sweeps and detentions of the general population.

In fact, if the truth were to be told, Cuba's performance in some crucial areas of human rights -- those the Universal Declaration on Human Rights lists under "the economic, social and cultural rights" -- is outstanding by any measure. The absence of poverty, hunger, preventable disease, illiteracy, homelessness and unemployment is impressive even to people and governments not enamored of the Cuban political system.

The fact that Cuba considers food, housing, education, health care and jobs as basic human rights guaranteed in the Constitution puts that system relatively high in the esteem of many human rights buffs, regardless of the limitations on individual civil liberties.

Despite the serious allegations by anti-Castro exiles, most impartial observers give Cuba's judicial and penal system a high rating in comparison to what existed before in Cuba and what exists today in other Latin American countries and in the United States.

And even those who are more concerned with individual rights, the area in which the Cuban system is weakest, generally acknowledge after witnessing the Cuban system first-hand that:

1) infringement of those rights seems to stem basically from the back-to-the-wall position the United States has put Cuba in consistently since its 1959 revolution, and

2) they are not so massive as to warrant more than passing comment from the international community.

Ambassador Claude Heller of Mexico best expressed this last point. "The UN's work in defense of human rights has had two major objectives," he explained in an address clearly pointed at the US proposal to investigate Cuba. "The progressive development of international norms, and the consideration of those cases and situations in which, because they gravely and massively affect basic individual rights, justify the concern of the world community."

It was on this basis that the Mexican diplomat questioned the inclusion of Cuba on the HRC agenda.

"The effectiveness and credibility of our work demands strict attention to these criteria," he observed. "For that reason, the members of this Commission have the high responsibility of carrying out a well thought-out and objective analysis of each situation, avoiding preconceived formulas and political and ideological prejudices concerning the facts presented to us."

In what everyone understood as a direct criticism of the US delegation and its single-minded pursuit of Cuba, Heller continued: "Those who utilize the question of human rights for other ends, and only in function of their own interests, distort the mechanisms we have established and injure the international system of protection and preservation of human rights, turning them into an arm of political pressure that demands loyalty and support."

The Human Rights Commission, Heller insisted, "is not the proper forum for resolving bilateral and regional conflicts." By allowing some country to push the Commission into taking sides on such issues, he asserted, "we would be annulling in practice the effective possibility of fulfilling the objectives of promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms." In other words, the United States, which has loudly blasted every decision and every agency of the UN that acts against US interests as "politicizing" the UN, was being accused of doing just that in the Human Rights Commission.


Despite Mexico's protests and the recognition that Heller was enunciating the majority position in the Commission, the US delegation chose to pursue its own goals throughout the six-week session, virtually ignoring the concerns of other countries (not to mention those of the NGOs). This was not one of these give-and- take situations that typifies, for instance, the actions of US congressmen: "You vote for my bill and I'll vote for yours." In most cases, the US delegation did not feel it had to vote for anyone else's resolution.

So the US repeatedly found itself voting in the minority against resolutions condemning human rights abuses in South Africa and Namibia, Israel in occupied Palestine, El Salvador, Chile; against measures renouncing the use, promotion, financing and training of mercenaries to destabilize or overthrow governments; against resolutions supporting the treaty rights of indigenous peoples and a series of others advocating economic, social and cultural rights (including the right to economic development), and the use of sanctions to combat racism and apartheid.

In many other cases, the US was saved from voting in the opposition only because the measures were passed without a vote, or because they posed no ideological problem for the Reagan administration (either because it applied directly to a Soviet- bloc country or could be assumed to apply to them as well as to US allies). Leaving aside the question of why the Reagan administration sent a delegation to Geneva instructed to vote against all such measures, one might well ask, "But how COULD the delegation vote against practically every issue of importance to those concerned with human rights, and still expect others to vote in favor of ITS resolution? Could anyone take seriously the US' pretended concern for the rights of Cuban citizens when it ignored those of the peoples of the rest of the world?"

The answer is power: economic power, political power, military power. The power that made everyone shut up and sit frozen in their seats when Vernon Walters took the floor. The US delegation simply did not feel it HAD to vote for anyone else's resolution in order to win compliance from other nations in voting for its bill. It was enough that Vernon Walters and Armando Valladares said this was important to the United States; that Maureen Reagan appeared to tell delegates how much this meant to her father, personally. And what would happen to them if they did NOT vote "for us". In the Human Rights Commission, as in so many other international forums, the real issues are not worked out on the floor, but in the hallways, lounges and backrooms. US tactics were divided into two categories: the theatrics it performed in press conferences, film-showings,and other side-events, and the secret negotiations, aptly labeled "arm-twisting" by The Guardian of London and "threats" by the Spanish news service, EFE.


The center-piece of the US delegation's theatrical performance was Armando Valladares, a former political prisoner, poet and paralytic, -- or policeman, terrorist and imposter (depending on whose version you believe). In any case, an apt protegee of the film-actor president who appointed him.

Although ultimately of no consequence whatsoever to the final decision of the Commission, the question of Valladares --was he or wasn't he? (a policeman, a terrorist, a poet, paralyzed )-- dominated the debate between Cuba and the United States, and captured most of the media attention, for several weeks.

The US attempted to parade Valladares and a number of other rabidly anti-Castro Cuban exiles --many of them former prisoners -- before the Commission last year, too. But, according to the equally anti-Castro Miami press, they were given too little hearing by professional diplomats and international media, despite President Reagan's speeded-up granting of citizenship to Valladares to make him an official member of the delegation.

(Valladares, who left Cuban prison in October 1982 for France, from there to take up residence in Madrid, was granted US citizenship in January, 1987, although lacking the mandatory five year residency requirement. The justification for this flouting of US immigration regulations, according to the Miami Herald, "he is married to a US citizen and spends half his time in the US". Immigration lawyers can try to figure that one out.)

To make sure that the international community did not again snub his best spokesman against the Castro regime, this year Ronald Reagan appointed Valladares ambassador to the Human Rights Commission, thus guaranteeing that everyone would have to listen to him (whether or not they believed him).

This permitted and provoked more than your usual amount of theatre. On the one hand, Valladares could play his role of abused former political prisoner to the hilt. On Agenda Item 10, "Torture", the US representative addressed the Commission with what many smilingly described as his most accurate statement of the session:

"Mr. Chairman," he began "I am not a career diplomat, nor am I an expert on the technical aspects of this Commission." With that preface, he then excused himself from commenting on all of the items listed under that point on the agenda: torture in other parts of the world (that is, in countries other than those listed as separate agenda items because of the gravity of the human rights situation there). Instead, unlike all other delegation chiefs, who attempt to address broad issues, he limited himself to an entirely personal account (some would say fanciful) of his years in Cuban prisons.

Speaking in Spanish, Valladares expounded: "I remember when they had me in a punishment cell, naked, my leg fractured in several places --fractures that were never treated and eventually fused into a mass of deformed bones," the Ambassador claimed. "Through the wire mesh that covered the cell, the guards would pour over me buckets of urine and excrement that they had collected earlier."

The head of the Cuban delegation (which has only observer status in this commission), Deputy Foreign Minister Raul Roa Kouri, responded to US charges with a strong denial on the floor that the Cuban population would ever permit the return of pre-revolutionary repressive measures such as torture. He added that it would be virtually impossible for the government to be carrying out massive repressive measures without the public being aware of it -- and that lack of awareness would, in any case, negate the purpose of the repression. Numerous reporters and observers have confirmed that the bulk of the Cuban population backs the government's statement that torture is never used.

The Cuban delegation was not without its own sense of theatre, however. One Cuban delegate, unable to resist the temptation, ad libbed a low blow at Valladares' residence in Spain and inability to speak English. As she was about to read the Cuban resolution denouncing violation of rights of blacks, women, prisoners, linguistic minorities, the homeless and the poor in the United States, she introduced her remarks: "Mr. Chairman, I AM a career diplomat; I do live in and speak the language of the country I am representing, and I am speaking in the name of my people, so I have no need to make purely personal remarks."

Roa supplemented his remarks in the hall with a press conference repeating the charges that Valladares was a member of the pre- revolutionary Batista dictatorship's police force and a post- revolutionary terrorist band convicted for placing bombs in public centers.

He bolstered his arguments with an array of time-yellowed, worn documents and newspapers -- and a copy of a purloined US State Department letter from Secretary of State George Schultz to all US missions abroad, trying to "rehabilitate" the image of Armando Valladares.

This was more a diplomatic coup than anything else. The US was forced to admit that the document in Cuban hands was the real thing --embarrassing mostly because the Cubans had gotten hold of it, and because it showed a number of countries with whom the US maintains diplomatic relations the derogatory way in which the State Department refers to them in private.

Aside from this, the stolen US document probably did far less than the documents the Cuban government itself brought out to demonstrate that the current HRC ambassador had lied when he denied membership in the Batista police force and about his claimed paralysis while in jail. (Videos the Cubans played for the press at their Geneva Mission showed Valladares getting up and walking out of the room after being shown films taken secretly in his cell while he was doing exercises, at a time when he was still supposedly "paralyzed".)

The only thing perhaps new and noteworthy in the US document was the admission that part of the reason that Valladares book "Against All Hope" became an instant "best-seller" around the world was that it was distributed massively by the US Information Agency. (Presumably it was their advertising and publicity campaign that reached so many gullible reporters who, almost without exception, repeated the publicist's blurb about Valladares being no more than a soft-spoken, religious clerical worker whose only crime was to speak out against communism.)

Valladares was not without his supporters in Geneva. In addition to a militant (not to say aggressive) cheering section of Cuban- American reporters from the Miami area (the Miami Herald's English and Spanish papers had at one point a total of FIVE reporters covering the Geneva antics --an astonishing figure for a local newspaper), several reporters claiming to represent major wire services also acted as a Valladares fan club.

One, who said he was from Reuters, not only harassed Roa with hostile, disbelieving questions throughout the Cuban diplomat's press conference. He also proposed to other American journalists afterwards that they ask Valladares to "show his scars" as proof of his allegations of torture in Cuban prisons, "even if it means he has to strip in front of the assembly."

Days later, when the US delegate held a press conference, the Reuters reporter had a chance to put his plan into action. When other questions had been exhausted, he raised his hand and politely asked Mr. Valladares if he couldn't "show us your scars". Valladares obligingly leaned forward and let the reporter rub his head (you couldn't actually SEE the scars through Valladares shock of black hair, but Reuters let us know that he felt them).

If they had advertised it as a "photo opportunity" it could not have been planned better: every camera in the room clicked on cue to capture the image of the tall, blond American reporter leaning over, smiling ingratiatingly, as he rubbed the hidden "scars" under the shiny black hair of the Cuban-American ambassador.

Having been brought up to be too polite to engage equally in this journalistic rough-and-tumble, I resisted the temptation to ask Mr. Valladares if he could also let us see his limp. (Valladares' obvious robust health and his cocky way of strutting around the hallways and lounges seemed to belie his assertion that his leg had been left "a mass of deformed bones." Some of the NGOs joked: "The Cubans ought to use Valladares as proof of the miracle break- throughs they've made in bone-healing techniques.")

There were other temptations as well. At one point, Valladares told the Session of the "callous disregard for human life" in North Korea, illustrating his point with an allegation about a bomb placed on a civilian airliner allegedly by "two North Korean operatives".

"This shocking act," Valladares declared righteously, "deserves the very strong condemnation of all governments regardless of ideology or foreign policy. Deeds such as this," he went on, "should not be forgotten, and should be mentioned every year."

Fine! I thought to myself. Now I can ask him if this means he will for the first time condemn the actions of his fellow exiles and spiritual allies who placed the bomb in the Cubana airliner in 1976, killing all 73 passengers and crew members aboard. (Orlando Bosch, leader of the Cuban exile terrorist underground and admitted CIA operative, recently received a hero's welcome in Miami when he returned there after Venezuelan courts claimed they could not prove he had masterminded the bombing. Mr. Valladares has nothing but good words for Mr. Bosch.)

But Mr. Valladares statement had gone even further. "If we do not condemn these incidents," he asserted, "we run the risk of becoming accomplices to murder -- we would become worse than animals if we became insensitive in the face of those who kill without remorse or without justification."

Another great opportunity for questions! Mr. Valladares had on his list of "political prisoners unjustly awaiting the death sentence in Castro's prisons" one Arturo Suarez. He is, in fact, the only one of that list whom the Cubans say is condemned to death.

But while the Americans and Cuban-Americans would have Suarez viewed as an innocent victim, Cuban press accounts from the time of his arrest last year told a very different story. Suarez was one of two men who used fragmentation hand grenades in an attempt to hijack a domestic Cuban airliner to Miami. The other hijacker, who was reportedly trying to "free" his mother from the suburban Havana village of Santa Fe for a better life in the USA, was shot and killed after the grenade he exploded critically injured 13 passengers, including a five year old boy.

Suarez' "innocence" apparently rests on the Cuban-Americans' contention that, unlike his partner, "he did not explode a grenade inside the plane." True enough. But all the accounts of the other passengers confirm that he, too, THREW his grenade; it simply didn't go off. Few courts in the world would give him credit for that.

So in light of Valladares' new-found concern over the "accomplices of murder", it seemed reasonable to ask if he would now remove Mr. Suarez from his list of Cuban "prisoners of conscience."

There were a few other questions I was longing to ask Mr. Valladares, too. In his earlier press conference, he had listed a number of international organizations as having condemned human rights violations in Cuba. Knowing from past experience that the second-and-third-hand quoting of such reports is often distorted, I asked Nial MacDermot, the director of the International Commission of Jurists -- one of those named --if he had a copy of their report on Cuba.

MacDermot informed me that the ICJ had not DONE any investigation of Cuba, and therefore had not issued a report, in the 16 years he had presided over the organization.

Taking that in stride, I went over to the American delegate who had translated for Valladares at his press conference, to confirm that it was, in fact, the ICJ they had referred to. "Yes, it was," he assured me.

As I turned to walk away -- reflecting perhaps on the fact that he had just seen me speaking with MacDermot -- he added, "that report was in 1962."

Now, I was aching for Mr. Valladares to have another press conference, so I could ask if he didn't think it was a little bit dishonest to allege in 1988 that a human rights organization had condemned Cuba for rights violations, knowing that the report in question spoke of events that took place 24 years ago.

Before Mr. Valladares decided to face the press again, I was confronted with other indications of this strange "time warp" that seems to surround US allegations against Cuba.

I had told a British journalist that it seemed to me that Castro's opponents had been trying to coopt the language and experiences of Latin Americans who had suffered torture and repression under military dictatorships.

One example, I said, was the recent claim that there are "disappeared" in Cuba. Having worked as a journalist in Cuba for five years, I explained, I was at first astounded by such an unfounded charge.

Later I was somewhat bemused to learn that the "disappeared" they were listing were not individuals forcibly taken from their homes and then left lying dead in a ditch, as happens throughout Central America. Instead, according to the pro-US "Cuban Committee for Human Rights", the problem was in locating the bodies of persons imprisoned and executed under Cuban death penalty laws, whose remains had not been turned over to their families, or were not in the graves assigned to them. SO instead of missing persons, we had (at worst) missing cadavers. (Something the Cuban delegation denied, in any case.)

But now my British friend was telling me there were actual cases of disappeared PERSONS in Cuba today --the US delegation had been handing out a list.

Wanting to be objective about the matter, I said, "OK. Give me some of the names and addresses of the families, and I'll try to check it out when I get back."

He pulled out a pocket of zeroxed pages, the top one reading in bold letters: MISSING CUBANS WITHIN THEIR COUNTRY.

Turning to the inside pages, each accompanied by a photograph, I skimmed through looking for family names and addresses. The first one was in Madrid, the second, third and fourth in Miami, and so on. Not one address was in Cuba. Turning back to the first pages, I learned from the text that the "relatives in Cuba, living under terror" had not allowed the disclosure of their addresses.

Strange, I thought, recalling that families of the disappeared throughout Latin America not only give their names and addresses, but have formed associations and speak out publicly denouncing the ongoing activities of the death squads. After all, the people who disappeared their family members certainly know who they are and where they live. This must be equally true if disappearances are going on in Cuba, I reflected, so who are the families terrified of? The foreign press?

While contemplating this, I happened to glance at the date of the disappearance of the first man on the list: April 10, 1964. I began turning pages and perusing other dates: twelve were from 1961, two 1962, two 1966, and the most recent, 1969. Almost all were described as men who had been fighting against the new Cuban Revolution with the counterrevolutionary forces in the Escambray Mountains. None fit your classic model of persons dragged forcibly from their homes or jobs by secret police, army or death squads.

In the introductory pages, the missing men were described as "patriotic rebels." Good theatre; poor history.


There was good and bad theatre throughout the event. Bad --or at least dirty -- theatre was the US bribes and arm-twisting. Argentina --crucial in determining the Latin American vote -- was reported by the Spanish daily "El Pais" to have agreed to vote for the US resolution after a State Department representative offered Argentine President Raul Alfonsin a "deal he couldn't refuse".

The US would end the embargo on selling arms to Argentina (imposed after the Malvinas/Falklands war with Great Britain); intercede with Britain to halt its proposed military maneuvers off Argentina's southern tip; arrange for a reduction in the interest rate on the country's staggering foreign debt and, as a bonus, a cash credit of $15 million was said to have already been delivered. All in exchange for Argentina's vote against Cuba in the Commission.

According to "El Pais", Alfonsin insisted that Washington take the inflammatory, exaggerated rhetoric out of the resolution and simply call for an investigation.

Argentina's representative to the Commission, Leandro Despuy, angrily denied that Argentina would sell its vote, even for such a tempting offer. But everyone knew that with the Reagan administration placing such a heavy emphasis on the outcome of this vote, all decisions were being made in the countries' capitals, not in Geneva, so Argentina's vote remained in doubt until the very end.

Less doubtful was what smaller, more helpless countries would do. Sri Lanka was reliably reported by several sources to have indicated it would abstain on the vote, after the US threatened to cut off an $80 million contract to purchase textiles from that impoverished nation.

Other poor countries reported themselves in the same dilemma. Everyone knows that this isn't theatre: the US makes good on its threats.

Bad theatre -- or at least, bad diplomacy -- was also seen in Armando Valladares attempt to act as a diplomat. It wasn't enough that he was somewhat a laughing stock because of his inability to speak the language of the country he was representing, so had to be accompanied everywhere by an interpreter.

Valladares --though obviously well-coached, and performing admirably at press conferences -- outraged America's European allies by violating all the "rules of the game" for offering bribes, blackmail and threats. The first rule is that such "negotiations" take place in private, in back rooms, out of earshot of any witnesses. The second is that you never, never treat your Western allies as though they were Third World inferiors. Subtlety is the name of the game.

But Armando Valladares does not know how to be subtle. So he stood up in front of the Western Group at one of their daily meetings, and informed them that the United States considered the resolution against Cuba to be of extreme importance. That a vote against it would be considered a hostile act. That the US knows who its friends and who its enemies are. And -- just in case they had somehow failed to grasp his point -- that they should recall that after India pulled that ploy last year (proposing a successful motion not to vote on EITHER the US OR the Cuban resolution), India lost $15 million in US commercial credits. (The same amount the US offered Argentina for its vote this year --perhaps what it "saved" from India?)

European ambassadors stormed out of the session livid with rage. Some were heard to mutter: "What does he think we are, a bunch of banana republics?" The Ambassador from Spain was so angry that he forgot to lower his voice when recounting what had happened to some other diplomats, and was overheard by a reporter from the Spanish news agency EFE. She promptly sent the story out on the wires, under the heading "Armando Valladares Threatens Western Diplomats".

The ironic thing about Valladares' faux pax is that his threats were completely gratuitous. Almost all America's NATO partners would have voted for the US resolution as a matter of course, just as they were prepared to do last year. But it was an indication that the US delegation was feeling a little bit shaky about achieving success in a vote the Reagan administration had pinned so much of its hopes on.


IN THE END, it was some very good theatre that determined the outcome of the US bid to discredit the Cuban Revolution.

Latin American countries, determined not to let the weakest among them be forced into a position of either having to vote for a resolution they didn't believe in, or become the scapegoats for US vengeance, came up with a plan.

On the next-to-the-last day of the session, word began to spread: "Something's going to happen at 6:30. Stick around." Tension and excitement built as first it was revealed that the "something" would be a "Latin American initiative", and that "something" would happen as soon as the last of the NGO presentations under Item 12 on the agenda was concluded. Among the NGOs, speculation was rife that the "latinos" had come up with some solution to the "Cuba problem."

But as 6:30 came and went and there were still over a dozen NGOs on the speakers list, word began to leak out even more. Television cameramen and still photographers began setting up in the open space in the middle of the horseshoe-shaped amphitheatre. Soon, it was clear that practically everyone knew what was going to happen. Everyone but the United States, that is.

At 7:15 a tall, blond man (later identified as the Norwegian delegate) approached the table where the US delegation was seated, right at the center of the horseshoe. Suddenly, the American delegates were all on their feet, gesturing angrily, tense faces hinting at the words we couldn't hear from this distance. Smiles broke out around the room as everyone watched this silent movie play out, aware that the Americans had just learned that the rug was about to be pulled from under their resolution.

Then some of the US delegates stalked over to address the Latin American delegates. Soon, a Peruvian Indian NGO came back to where the rest of the indigenous peoples were seated and reported happily: "The American delegation just read the Latin countries the riot act -- but they're not backing down."

After a pause, the American team could be seen off on the far side of the room, talking heatedly with representatives of the Western European countries, Japan and the Philippines. Reporters crowded around the edge of the circle, unabashedly listening in. The question was: "What can we do to stop this?" The answer: "Nothing."

On cue, after the last NGO statement was made, Commission Chairman Aioune Sene (Senegal) called on the Ambassador from Bolivia. In a calm voice, she explained to the chair that the Latin American countries had been looking a for a "constructive solution" to this problem, and thought they had found one. She then asked, in the name of Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Colombia, to turn the floor over to the head of the Cuban delegation.

Raul Roa, with equal calm, then read a prepared statement, invited the chairman of the commission and five delegates selected by region, to visit his country and see for themselves anything they wanted. All doors would be open to them. The Cuban government would even pay their expenses if need be.

With that, Colombia then moved on behalf of the Latin American nations that the Commission accept the invitation -- a priority motion that would have superceded votes on the outstanding resolutions.

If the Latinos' action was good theatre, the US outdid itself in fulfilling the expectations for its role as the bad guy. An English-speaking delegate took the microphone and spat out with barely-suppressed rage: "Mr. Chairman, the proposal that has just been read out to us by the distinguished ambassador of Colombia comes as somewhat of a surprise, although, judging from the cameras, I guess it wasn't a surprise to everyone."

A ripple of laughter filled the room, as most felt themselves co- conspirators in this careful deception. The US delegate continued: "I think some of the procedures followed were highly particular, I'd like to point out that the distinguished observer of Cuba had no procedural basis on which to address the Commission, having already exhausted his rights to speak."

He went on to assert that the US had already made significant modifications in its resolution on Cuba at the suggestions of other countries, and insisted: "Our text is still on the table. It is correct from a procedural point of view and from a substantive point of view." The Latin American initiative, he stated, could be considered "for possible incorporation into our text". But the Cuban invitation, he made clear, was at best "a partial response" to the US resolution.

The American delegate concluded by inviting the authors of the initiative "to meet us NOW, in room 22, to discuss ways to adjust L26 [the US resolution] to the suggestions made."

The Latin American countries, not insensitive to the tone of command in that invitation, and still feeling cheerfully rebellious, let the Americans cool their heels alone in room 22 for a long half hour before joining them. The outcome was far from satisfactory to the US delegation.

Still fighting a losing battle the next day, as the Non-Aligned nations decided in their daily caucus to support the motion, as did the socialist countries, the US closeted Chairman Sene in a back room and spent long hours trying to convince him to work out a compromise that would not be a total withdrawal of the US resolution.

The afternoon session was delayed an hour and a half in starting as the wrangling continued, leaving everyone in suspense as to what the US was saying to him, and how he was responding. When Sene reappeared, he added a last note of drama to the play as he looked over the crowded room, which fell into an expectant hush.

The ambassador from Senegal, with measured words, explained that he considered the motion presented by Colombia to be the "most constructive" one presented, and added for emphasis that he hoped no one would oppose it. Sene then asked that the motion be passed by consensus -- glaring all the while at the US as though to say: "You lost. Shut up. It's all over."

And it was. As joyful handclasps, pats on backs and hugs filled the room, each of the Latin American ambassadors, plus those from Algeria and India, stood up in turn, to praise and congratulate the Cuban government for its "positive, cooperative" attitude, and to declare this a "victory for Latin American unity."

And it was. The US now had no choice but to withdraw its resolution. No one had to vote for it or against it -- no one, except the four countries which had decided to risk incurring the US wrath, would have to pay the penalty.

When the Italian ambassador (who began chairing this session due to Sene's late arrival) called the session back to order, he began with the words: "I'm sorry to interrupt the Latin American fiesta, but..."

The Commission then got back to its real work, swiftly passing resolutions continuing the special rapporteurs for El Salvador and Chile (over the US protests that the human rights situation had improved in those two countries)...

When it was all over, Armando Valladares had to swallow the bitter pill of defeat and put the best face on the situation. In what must have been his most difficult scene of this play, he told the press that this was a victory for the US. None of the press was out to kick a fallen man; no one asked why, if this was what the US wanted, it had fought so hard over the last 24 hours to keep it from coming to pass.


A word is needed here by way of explanation to those uninitiated in the rites of international forums, and who might be deceived by later US assertions that the Cubans and their supporters were afraid to face a direct vote on the issue.

Cuba did not have to avoid a direct vote. The best "insider information" had it, after all the swings back and forth, that Cuba would have narrowly won the vote again this year, if it came to a direct showdown.

But someone would have paid the price in such a confrontation, and it wouldn't have been Cuba, which is already blockaded, embargoed, threatened and vilified by Washington. The real losers in this kind of face-to-face would have been the small, vulnerable third world countries whose economies are already staggering under the effects of unequal trade, declining prices for their exportable products, and skyrocketing interest rates on their unpayable foreign debt.

Washington doesn't just threaten to take reprisals against countries that don't vote its way in international forums --it makes good on those threats, as a number of countries can attest.

The Valladares-led delegation made it clear to one and all that, in the US view, they wouldn't be voting for or against the contents of a resolution asking, in the mildest terms possible, for an investigation of the human rights situation in Cuba. They would be voting for or against the United States.

In this context, the move by the four Latin American countries wasn't one to save Cuba --it was to save those countries who couldn't afford to displease the US, from having to make a choice between their conscience and their countries' needs. It was also a move to save the credibility of the Human Rights Commission itself, which would have been severely damaged if it had given way to this political bullying.

The joy felt by almost everyone at having pulled the rug out from under the US resolution was the age old elation of David after felling Goliath, the little guys who just bested the biggest bully on the block. If there was any doubt who the real victor in this affair was, the heads of the Latin American delegations made it clear as, in speech after speech, they praised and thanked the Cuban government for its cooperative attitude, and declared this a triumph for Latin American unity.

But it was more than just Cuba, Latin America, and the "little guys" who came out ahead in all this. When the member countries were able once again to turn back the attempt of the United States to politicize the proceedings according to its anti-communist, East-West "Evil Empire" politics, they were enabling the Commission to return to its real business of dealing with major human rights violations in the world. It was the Human Rights Commission, and what it stands for, that won out in the end.


Theatre is, by definition, untrue. It is the enactment of a play, rather than the real thing. Lack of truthfulness is what this theatrical spectacle by the Reagan administration is all about. And lack of truthfulness is what the US policy in Central and South America have been about for a long time.

It was the success of Washington's campaign of lies about the Cuban Revolution that made the invasion of Grenada acceptable; that confused a significant portion of an American public that wanted no war in Central America but was nevertheless concerned about "Cubans arming the guerrillas in El Salvador" or about Nicaragua "becoming another Cuba".

As long as lies are told about Cuba with impunity, the current occupant of the White House can send troops into almost any part of this hemisphere with the justification of heading off "the Cuban threat". It is only when significant numbers of Americans challenge the lies about Cuba that we can hope to end this interventionist policy.

A week after the Geneva HRC session ended, Ronald Reagan ordered 3200 US soldiers into Honduras on the pretext that Nicaraguan troops were "invading" that country in pursuit of the contras. By then, I was in Hartford, Connecticut, preparing to give a lecture at Trinity College.

Accompanying my hostess to a spur-of-the moment demonstration called by Pledge of Resistance -- a peaceful noon vigil outside the Federal Building -- I observed picketers walking silently in front of the building, holding up their signs and banners. The placard held by one white-haired woman pleaded wistfully, "I'D LIKE TO BE ABLE TO LOVE JUSTICE AND MY COUNTRY, TOO."


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