Between a Sharp Tongue and a Blind Eye: The Politics of Criticism and Propaganda

September 25, 2007

The Bush administration’s propaganda machine has taken advantage of Fidel Castro’s recent crackdown on his country’s dissident movement by cranking up the ever-present U.S. demonization of Cuba. Following the arrests and sentencing of 75 dissidents and Cuba’s re-election to the UN Human Rights Commission, Washington’s ambassador to the UN Economic and Social Council, Sichan Siv, pointedly stated that Washington views “Cuba as the worst violator of human rights in this hemisphere.” On April 3, State Department spokesman, Philip T. Reeker, declared: “The Castro regime’s actions are the most despicable act of political repression in the Americas in a decade.”

As Washington’s concern for human rights in Cuba is broadcast around the world, there has been no official comment from Washington on a UN Human Rights report issued in March noting that the U.S.-backed Colombian military’s direct involvement in human rights abuses escalated last year and that “many of these actions were carried out as part of the new [President Alvaro Uribe] government’s security policy.”

Neither the mainstream media nor the numerous public petitions condemning the arrests of the Cuban dissidents and the executions of three ferry hijackers have called the Bush administration to task for its selective parading of human rights principles. It is obvious hypocrisy to label Cuba the region’s worst human rights offender while providing hundreds of millions of dollars in annual military aid to the Colombian Armed Forces who, in addition to their own abuses, are closely allied with murderous right-wing paramilitary death squads. As U.S. aid props up the hemisphere’s worst human rights abusers, the Bush administration distorts the regional human rights reality in order to fulfill its own political agenda.

There is no question that the outrage against the Castro government is justified: The brevity of the closed trials of the 75 dissidents, the apparent lack of due process, the excessive sentences of six to 28 years for political dissidence and, perhaps above all, the summary executions of the three ferry hijackers, are all outrageous and worthy of condemnation.

One cannot, however, ignore the fact that Cuba’s crackdown occurred within the context of ongoing aggressive U.S. policies—including the ongoing economic embargo— that have targeted the island for more than 40 years. The chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, James Cason, has repeatedly met with opposition activists inside the U.S. Interests Section. He has also traveled throughout Cuba to meet with opposition groups and to hand out thousands of short-wave radios that provide Cubans with access to Radio Martí, the anti-Castro station based in Miami. On March 10, the Cuban government requested that Cason stop making provocative statements and organizing meetings with Cuban dissidents. Cason ignored the Cuban government’s request and organized another meeting of dissidents at his residence only two days later.

Twenty-eight of the jailed Cuban dissidents were journalists. Appalling as this may be, it pales in comparison to the Colombian government’s record regarding the ongoing slaughter of journalists in that nation. During March, the same month as Cuba’s crackdown, three Colombian journalists were assassinated. The name of one of them, Luis Eduardo Alfonso, had appeared on a death list issued by the right-wing paramilitary organization, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which is closely allied with the U.S.-backed Colombian military. Two of the ten journalists on the list have been killed and the other eight have fled the department of Arauca, which has left no journalists to report on Colombia’s most hotly contested region—a region in which U.S. Army Special Forces troops are currently operating as part of Washington’s global “war on terror.”

Last year in Colombia, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), “Eight journalists or media assistants were killed; around 60 were kidnapped, threatened or physically attacked; more than 20 were forced to leave their region or the country; and eight attacks or attempted attacks by means of explosives were reported.” While the Bush administration has focused the human rights spotlight on Cuba, it has ignored the repressive conditions under which journalists in Colombia are forced to work. The responsibility of shedding light on human rights abuses in countries allied with Washington has been left to non-governmental organizations such as the CPJ, which has reported: “The [Colombian] government’s failure to prosecute these crimes perpetuates a climate of impunity that leaves the media wide open to violence and has led many journalists to go into exile.” In total, more than 116 journalists have been killed in Colombia during the past 15 years.

There has also been no comment from the Bush White House on recent efforts by the Uribe administration to increase censorship of the media in Colombia as part of the “war on terror.” The Colombian president has been pushing a counterterrorism bill through that country’s congress that calls for eight to 12 years in prison for anyone who publishes an article considered to be “counterproductive to the fight against terrorism,” or whom the government deems is “boosting the position or image of the enemy.” The offending media outlet can also be shut down.

And risky as it is to work as a journalist in Colombia, trade unionists find themselves in an even more perilous position. More than three thousand labor leaders have been killed in Colombia over the past 15 years without a single culprit being brought to justice. Last year alone, 184 Colombian unionists were killed, more than in the rest of the world combined. According to human rights groups, right-wing paramilitary death squads are responsible for the huge majority of these killings. While the Bush administration is eager to point out the Cuban government’s repression of opposition members in order to demonize the Castro regime, it is again conspicuously silent regarding the ongoing massacre of Colombian unionists critical of their government.

In sharp contrast to U.S. State Department statements strongly condemning Cuba for its recent actions, when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met with President Uribe in Bogotá in December 2002 there was no criticism of the Colombian military’s escalating human rights abuses and close ties to paramilitary death squads. To the contrary, Secretary Powell announced that the United States would provide Colombia with $573 million in aid for 2003. This mostly military aid is up from $300 million in 2002.

It is not surprising that the mainstream media has once again served as the mouthpiece for the administration with regard to obediently demonizing the White House’s foreign target of the month. It is surprising, however, that so many prominent progressive intellectuals in the United States have signed petitions condemning Cuba without criticizing the Bush administration’s strategy of using the crackdown on dissidents to politicize human rights. While we all have a responsibility to condemn human rights abuses everywhere, it is just as important that we reprimand our own government for distorting the region’s human rights reality in order to achieve its political objectives.

Garry M. Leech is editor of the online journal Colombia Report,, and founder of the Information Network of the Americas. He is also author of Killing Peace: Colombia’s Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention.

Tags: Cuba, Colombia, propaganda, censorship, repression

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