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UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHTS

By on December 24, 2014
Endy Zemenides

Endy Zemenides

On Tuesday, December 16th, Senator Robert Menendez gave a rousing speech on the floor of the Senate about the violation of international law and human rights on the island nation of Cyprus.  Just one day later, as President Obama announced a shift in U.S. policy in Cuba, Senator Menendez had to once again be the voice speaking in favor of human rights, this time in Cuba.

In our community, we have long taken for granted the advocacy of Senator Menendez and Cuban-Americans like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Albio Sires on Hellenic issues.  Maybe we’ve assumed that large Greek-American constituencies or significant fundraisers made them our advocates.  While over their careers they’ve built relationships with such constituencies and benefited from such fundraisers, that is not what initially drew them to our issues.  It was empathy.

When Tasos Zambas started talking to then Congressman Robert Menendez about Cyprus, it wasn’t a promise of fundraising or votes that got his attention.  It was how the human rights violations in Cyprus and the pain of Greek-Cypriot refugees reminded him of the plight of Cubans and Cuban exiles here in America.  He has made Cyprus a personal priority for the two decades since that conversation.  He brought along the Diaz-Balart brothers (Republicans) and his successor in the House, Albio Sires (a Democrat) with that same appeal to empathy.  And there has been no more solid block of advocates for all Hellenic issues than our Cuban American friends.

And that is why – as a matter of loyalty and friendship, and to show that we too have empathy – the Greek-American community must raise its voice in favor of the human rights of the Cuban people.  We were given all kinds of reasons why U.S. policy on Cuba had to be changed – it galvanized anti-American sentiment in Latin America, it hadn’t worked (in as far as removing the Castros or establishing democracy in Cuba), it gave the Castros yet another reason to repress the Cuban people (as if dictators need a reason), it robbed American businesses of another market.

What we didn’t hear was an expectation of how the human rights situation in Cuba is going to improve.  Only this from President Obama: “Change is going to come to Cuba,” he said. “It has to.”

Uh, really?  Weren’t we told the same thing about China two decades ago when the U.S. renewed Most Favored Nation Status?  Maybe the progress in China can shape our expectations in Cuba:

Freedom House rankings in 1990’s (when President Clinton renewed Most Favored Nation Status)

Status:  Not Free     Freedom Rating:  6.5 (7 = worst)

Civil Liberties: 6       Political Rights:    7

Freedom House rankings in 2001 (when China entered the WTO):

Status:  Not Free     Freedom Rating:  6.5 (7 = worst)

Civil Liberties: 6       Political Rights:    7

Freedom House ranking in 2014:

Status:  Not Free     Freedom Rating:  6.5 (7 = worst)

Civil Liberties: 6       Political Rights:    7

Maybe Freedom House has a certain bone to pick with China.  I’m sure here in the U.S. – where we convinced ourselves that the situation in China would get better because it has to – we would find some area of progress; maybe something as mundane and non-threatening as religious freedom.  Let’s look at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2014 report:  Ooops, China is STILL on the list of worst religious rights violators in the world.

How about Vietnam, which was cited in many of the analyses on Cuba?  Two decades of economic ties, no improvement in human rights.  Perhaps the relationship that threatens to expose engagement as a canard is the one between the West and Turkey.  The Republic of Turkey has enjoyed nearly a century of engagement with the West.  A century after the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides, nearly six decades after beginning a policy of religious persecution against its Christian minorities, forty years after invading and occupying Cyprus, Turkey has not only failed to make progress on any of these fronts, but it continues it human rights rollback on all fronts.  The Obama Administration went “all-in” with Erdogan’s Turkey, and this is its reward: a Western “ally” that helped bring about the Islamic State, the world’s leading jailer of journalists, a one-time example of Muslim democracy working overtime to extinguish the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and an occupier of an EU country (Cyprus).  Interestingly enough, on the very same day as the announced change in Cuba policy, a State Department official responded to a public question on Twitter.  Here is the stunning exchange:

Q: You don’t think Cypriots are entitled to same human rights and freedoms as Americans?

A: Realization of rights & freedoms affected by circumstances – history, geography, etc.  All different here from USA.

Wow.  Unfortunately, that is the general feeling about human rights out of our professional foreign policy establishment.

I can go on and on.  But let’s get back to the Cuban people.  One of the more reprehensible forms of repression in Cuba is Article 73 of its Criminal Code – the so called “dangerousness” law.  Human Rights Watch has called this the most “Orwellian of Cuba’s laws”, and it remains one that hasn’t abated during Raul Castro’s reign.  Among the violations that constitute “dangerousness” (and have landed Cubans in jail)?  Handing out copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A former President of Cyprus once spoke of friendship between Cyprus and Cuba.  The friendship should be between Hellenes and the people of Cuba – people fighting for democracy and universal human rights.  Let’s not be fooled, no amount of commerce, Cuban cigars or tourism will bring human rights in Cuba unless we keep demanding these rights.  So let’s prove our friendship to Senator Menendez and speak up for human rights in Cuba the way he speaks up for them in Cyprus or for the religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  As former Congressman Lincoln Diaz Balart once told PSEKA conference attendees: “For our enemies, JUSTICE.  For our friends . . .everything.”

About Endy Zemenides

Endy Zemenides is the Executive Director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC), a national advocacy organization for the Greek American community. To learn more about HALC, visit www.hellenicleaders.com