There’s been no letup in Cuba’s harsh treatment and imprisonment of its citizens who want more political freedom and free trade unions that actually protect the rights of workers.
That’s the conclusion reached by participants in a forum on “Freedom of Association in Cuba,” sponsored in June in Geneva by the Committee for Free Trade Unionism (CFTU) and the Unitary Council of Cuban Workers (CUTC). The forum was held concurrently with the 99th annual conference of the International Labor Organization (ILO).
During the forum, panelists highlighted the plight of the independent labor movement in Cuba, the Cuban government’s continuing violations of human rights, its harassment of independent labor activists, and the inhumane living conditions of Cuba’s political prisoners.
As an example, Aurelio Bachiller, a former political prisoner and now general secretary in exile of the National Independent Workers’ Confederation of Cuba (CONIC), explained to forum participants how his son MacDiel Bachiller was arrested and imprisoned by the Cuban government. The senior Bachiller was arrested in 1993 after he attempted to create an independent labor union of agricultural workers. He spent three years in a Cuban prison and in 2008 was able to emigrate to the United States with some members of his family. But MacDiel Bachiller was then arrested and charged with “social dangerousness” and sentenced to three years in a Cuban prison.
“This action,” Bachiller said, “was retaliation for my continued opposition, even in exile. to the harassment of those in Cuba who want free, independent labor unions. But, no matter how they persecute my family in Cuba, I will remain firm in my opposition to this regime and will work for freedom in Cuba….my ideas are not interchangeable. The Cuban people want to be free and only ask that our rights be respected, that we have the right to exercise free speech, the right to think on our own and to behave peacefully. Above all, we want to reclaim our rights, we want respect and humane treatment, and freedom and democracy for the Cuban people.”
Cuba’s continuing harsh treatment of political prisoners and denial of freedom of association was cited by Thomas R. Donahue, CFTU chair and president emeritus of the AFL-CIO.
“The inhumane conditions in Cuban jails,” Donahue said, “resulted in the recent death of dissident construction worker Orlando Zapata Tamayo, and the deteriorating physical condition of journalist Guillermo Fariñas, who is staging a hunger strike. Fariñas is protesting abhorrent Cuban prison conditions, which include beatings, denial of medical care, malnourishment and other abuses.
“Through this forum and our other efforts, we are asking organizations and individuals to focus once again on the plight of Cuban trade unionists who have been imprisoned for seven long years. They were jailed in the spring of 2003, when government forces rounded up seventy-five trade unionists, journalists, human rights campaigners and democracy activists and sentenced them to prison terms up to 26 years as enemies of the state or counterrevolutionaries.”
Another presenter, Joel Brito, who is executive director of the International Group for Corporate Social Responsibility of Cuba (GIRSCC), provided evidence about the exploitation of Cuban workers by multinational and European corporations. These organizations hire Cuban workers through the Cuban government. The government receives payment for the workers, or uses their labor to pay off its debt to foreign countries but pays the workers much less than they earn. Brito also discussed the poor state of the Cuban economy this year, including a substantial drop in the production of sugar.
At its conference this year, the ILO was supposed to review labor conditions in 26 countries, including Cuba, for serious and extensive violations of the organization’s core Conventions. However, during a final consideration, Cuba and its allies forced a compromise that resulted in the deferral of the formal review until 2011. Anna Wolanska, international affairs director, Solidarnosc of Poland and deputy member of the ILO governing body, told the forum that Cuba’s adherence to the ILO’s Conventions and Recommendations would likely be reviewed at the ILO’s 100th annual conference, next year.
At least 10 independent trade unionists remain in prison or under house arrest in Cuba, and several are gravely ill because of harsh prison conditions and lack of medical attention. Seven years ago, the International Trade Unions Confederation (ITUC) protested directly to the Cuban government that labor activists were being “kept in prisons under inhumane and degrading conditions, in walled-in cells filled with vermin.” Now, seven years later, nothing has changed.
More than 50 participants representing worker and employer delegations from Colombia, the United States, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela, Poland, Denmark, and El Salvador, attended the CFTU-CFTC forum. Panelists included Aurelio Bachiller Alvarez; Manuel Cova, general secretary of the Venezuelan Workers’ Confederation (CTV); Anna Wolanska, and Joel Brito. The panel discussion was moderated by Jack Otero, CFTU secretary, and a former member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council.