Today’s article is part of the Re-Evolution series that focuses on a trip to Cuba in 1985, a late night meeting with Fidel Castro, and a confrontation that provoked a small, yet significant improvement in the ability of human rights organizations to conduct fact-finding operations in Cuba.
Phil Villers and I first met when I worked in his garden. It was one of my first jobs. He was a good boss, and I learned how to tell when the zucchinis were ripe, as well as what to do about the never ending insistence of weeds. As I grew to learn more about Phil’s advocacy work with Families of USA, a non-profit organization focused on health care equity, I learned about a trip Phil had taken to Cuba in 1985 with a US delegation focused on healthcare and education. When the conversation moved to a late night meeting with Fidel Castro, I saw a twinkle in Phil’s eye and knew I had to learn more.
Phil explained that because Cuba wouldn’t allow human rights organizations to come to Cuba, nor give them reliable information, the reputation of human rights in Cuba was entirely controlled by his enemy – the United States and their allies.
The group Phil was traveling with had put in a request to meet with Castro, but received no answer. They were in Cuba for a week, and when they finally got the call that Castro would meet them, the meeting started in the middle of the night. With the United States having attempted multiple assassinations of Castro, there were thorough security precautions including vetting the individuals at the meeting, and Castro’s plain-clothed security always kept an eye on the group. Luckily, Phil was allowed to bring his small camera and since nobody objected, he took some pictures.
They met in a conference room. Phil remembers Castro as “a tall man, with a strong physique, a voice that carried. “He looks like a leader and talks like a leader and is a leader.” In Castro’s typical manner, he dominated the conversation, speaking for hours on all of the problems in Latin America, and how the US was contributing to the issues. The only way for Phil to bring up the questions of human rights that he was interested in was to interrupt him. Interrupting a president is not considered the most courteous thing one can do, but at that time, there weren’t many other options.
At one point in the meeting, Castro stood up and it was his way of indicating that the meeting was over. As he stood up, Phil said, “I have one more question,” and everyone knew what was coming. According to Ron Pollack, who was also at the meeting, when Phil interrupted Castro the tension in the room was palpable.
Human rights in Cuba is an issue that has persisted in Cuba throughout the Castro Family’s 60 year ruling of the Cuban Communist Party. While technically there are elections, they are not free nor competitive. The communist party is the sole party to compete in elections. Even as the figure heads of the party have changed with Fidel and then Raul Castro both stepping down in turn as president, many of the same repressive policies remain. For these reasons Phil interrupted Castro.
Phil said: “Mr. President, there’s another subject we’d like to talk about. Would you like to know the reputation of human rights in Cuba in the international community?”
Castro said “yes”, and they began a brief, yet consequential conversation. Phil explained that because Cuba wouldn’t allow human rights organizations to come to Cuba, nor give them reliable information, the reputation of human rights in Cuba was entirely controlled by his enemy – the United States and their allies. While the human rights situation in Cuba had serious issues, the real issues were not as bad as the imaginary ones. Castro accepted Phil’s reasoning, and he continued with two action items that were among the top requests of human rights watch organizations at the time:
- A list of political prisoners and where they were located in Cuba
- Allow established human rights organizations in Cuba for fact-finding missions
It is important to note, that while Castro heard Phil’s critiques on human rights in Cuba, the outcome of the conversation was far from decisive. To this day, Cuban citizens are not allowed to gather in protest or formalize independent human rights organizations. Independent artists, journalists, and businesses do push at the limits of expression, sometimes with the consequence of imprisonment. At the time of writing this article, historic protests have broken out in Cuba – in the capital and throughout the provinces. Stifled freedom, and shortages of food and medicine compounded by COVID-19, and the longstanding US embargo against Cuba all have come to a breaking point.
Remembering this story, Phil still has a twinkle in his eye. And the biggest take away for me, if you feel what you need is important, ask for it. You never know what might come out of it.
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Part of the reporting for this article was sourced from groups including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Civil Rights Defenders, and other global Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), groups that do independent research around the world.