Cuba's government signed two key international human rights treaties Thursday that Fidel Castro long opposed, but said it had reservations about some provisions and accused the United States of impeding the Cuban people's enjoyment of their rights.
Fidel Castro was still president when Cuba announced Dec. 10 that it would sign the accords on civil, political and economic rights and at the time he asked government television to re-air his objections in case Cubans had forgotten his opposition.
The formal signing came four days after Fidel's younger brother, Raul, permanently replaced him in the presidency after filling in during Fidel's illness since mid-2006.
Whether the signing by Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque marks a turning point for human rights on the communist island nation remains to be seen.
Asked at a news conference whether Fidel's opposition to parts of the two covenants, including the right to form independent trade unions, had changed now that Raul is president, Perez Roque said no. He reiterated that Cuba would later specify some reservations about treaty provisions.
Cuba has long been criticized by the United States and others for jailing dissidents, who the government generally characterizes as U.S. mercenaries.
A Cuban activist group, the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, estimated early this year that 234 prisoners of conscience were held on the island. That was down from 246 last June 30 — continuing a decline since Raul took over from the ailing Fidel.
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the rights group, called Thursday's action by Perez Roque "positive news because the signing of these pacts is an old demand from inside Cuba and from the international community."
"I hope it honors the letter and spirit of the law of these pacts, but I am not sure it will," Sanchez said of Cuba's government.
A statement Cuba submitted when it signed the two treaties said its constitution and laws "guarantee the effective realization and protection of these rights for all Cubans," but also stressed that the government would register "reservations or interpretative declarations it considers relevant."
The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees "civil and political freedom," including the right to self-determination, peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, privacy, freedom to leave a country, and equal protection before the law.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requires countries to ensure the right to work, fair wages, freedom to form and join trade unions, social security, education and the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
At the Summit of the Americans in 2001, Fidel Castro criticized the International Covenant on Economic and Social and Cultural Rights. He said it "could serve as a weapon and a pretext for imperialism to try to divide and fracture the workers, create artificial unions, and decrease their political and social power and influence."
Perez Roque said Cuba was signing the covenants now because the U.N. Human Rights Commission — which he claimed the U.S. used for "brutal pressure and blackmail" against Cuba — had been "defeated" in what he called "a historic victory for the Cuban people."
The widely discredited and highly politicized commission, which adopted a number of resolutions condemning rights abuses in Cuba, was replaced by a new Human Rights Council in 2006. The Geneva-based council dropped Cuba last year from the list of countries whose rights records are subject to investigation, a move that the U.S. and Canada strongly criticized.
'We will very patient'
According to the Cuban statement submitted at the signing, the United States' economic embargo and hostility to Cuba's communist government "constitutes the most serious obstacle to the enjoyment by the Cuban people of the rights protected by the covenants."
"We are sure that the lifting of the embargo will come in the future," Perez Roque told reporters.
But he stressed that the 46-year-old embargo has to be lifted "without any conditions whatsoever."
Asked whether he could foresee improved U.S.-Cuban relations since Cuba has a new president and the U.S. will have a new leader next year, Perez Roque said he had "a favorite candidate" in the U.S. election — but he wouldn't say who.
He also noted that in the past, American candidates have said one thing about Cuba and then changed their position after being elected. "We will be very patient," Perez Roque said.