He overthrew a strongman, brought his country free health care and education, and enlisted Cubans in what he called fights for freedom from Central America to South Africa. Fidel Castro also maintained a steel grip at home, jailing dissidents and gays, controlling freedom of travel and expression and declaring virtually any activity outside his control to be illegitimate.
In the wake of the revolutionary’s death Friday night, human rights groups said they hoped that his brother and successor, Raul Castro, would move faster toward allowing Cubans more freedom of speech, assembly and other basic rights.
“The question now is what human rights will look like in a future Cuba,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, the Americas director for Amnesty International, said Saturday. “The lives of many depend on it.”
Under Raul Castro, Cuba has moved away from jailing political prisoners for extended sentences, instead making thousands of short-term arrests each year that Cuban dissidents say are designed to harass them and disrupt any attempt at political organizations. Cubans today feel freer to criticize their government in public, but any attempt at protest or demonstration is swiftly quashed. Independent journalists operate inside the country but find it nearly impossible to distribute printed material and they report repeated harassment from authorities.
Geoff Thale, director of programs at the Washington Office on Latin America, said Fidel Castro’s death meant that hardliners opposed to his younger brother’s modest reforms would be weakened, and “we are hopeful open political debate will pick up.”
When discussing their country’s human rights record, Cuban officials along with some rights advocates point out that the revolutionary government under Fidel Castro ran a massive literacy campaign, and dramatically improved the lives of millions of people by providing better access to housing and health care.
“For this, his leadership must be applauded,” said Amnesty’s Guevara-Rosas.
But she noted that Castro’s nearly half-century in power was also characterized by what she termed “a ruthless suppression of freedom of expression,” including sometimes long prison terms for people who spoke out strongly against the Cuban government.
In the early years after the 1959 revolution, hundreds of summary executions were carried out as the nation’s new leaders called for what they described as revolutionary justice.
“To the wall!” they chanted as members of deposed President Fulgencio Batista’s government were quickly tried and lined up before firing squads.
Cuba still retains the death penalty, with capital punishment carried out by firing squad, although its use has declined over the years.
Among the last known cases of firing squad executions included three men charged in the hijacking of a passenger ferry in 2003. The executions coincided with a crackdown and stiff prison sentences of up to 28 years for 75 of the government’s most vocal critics charged with receiving money from and collaborating with U.S. diplomats to undermine Cuba’s leadership.
Under Raul Castro, the years-long terms for non-violent acts of dissidence have grown rarer, replaced by frequent harassment and short-term arrests.
“The Orwellian laws that allowed for their imprisonment — and the imprisonment of thousands before them — remain on the books, and the Cuban government continues to repress individuals and groups who criticize the government or call for human rights,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch.