HAVANA (AP) — 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.
Since the revolutionary’s death Friday night, Cubans have defended Castro’s record while 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.
Berta Soler, head of the dissident group Ladies in White, said Sunday that she and her supporters decided to refrain from their traditional protest after Mass at a Havana church, out of respect for the feelings of Castro’s backers.
“We decided to pause this week, to take a break from our protest activities, given that the country is in mourning,” she said. “As defenders of human rights, we’ve decided to respect the pain of others.”
Many ordinary Cubans chafe at the country’s restrictions but say they are less concerned with civil liberties than with earning enough money to buy food and basic goods. For decades, the Cubans most frustrated with the limits of life on the island have left for new lives in the United States, Spain and other countries, creating a relief valve that has lessened the internal pressure for change.
Ricardo Garcia, 56, who was out taking a walk with his wife Sunday, said that while Castro may have permitted only one political party, “he always consulted the people. And everyone has always been in favor.”
At the same time, he said, “I’d like for everything to be more democratic, for everyone to be able to express themselves and define their own position.”
Maritza Martinez, a 50-year-old taxi driver, said discussing human rights was inappropriate in the wake of Castro’s death.
“It’s the type of thing that the enemies over there like,” he said of Cuban-Americans in Florida. “Here we have health care, education, many good things.”
Javier Hernandez, a 29-year-old bartender at a private restaurant, said most Cubans are more preoccupied with trying to make ends meet than with human rights.
“We work more than 12 hours a day and much of the time we don’t even have a minute to think about issues like that,” he said.
When discussing their country’s human rights record, Cuban officials along with some rights advocates said the revolutionary government under Fidel Castro ran an extensive 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 “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.