Monday, 16 February 2009

Gitmo and the rest


Received today, a circular from International PEN that begins:

Today is a momentous day for Cuba. Fifty years ago, on 16 February 1959, Fidel Castro brought about the fall of the US-backed dictatorship of Batista and Cuba became the western hemisphere's first communist state. 
 
2009 has been a doubly significant year for Cuba, due to President Obama's orders for the closure of the most notorious prison on the island, Guantanamo Bay. Within a year, the horrific prison conditions against which there have been worldwide protests for the last seven years will cease to exist.

However, there are reportedly over 300 other prisons on the island, many of which are notorious for the ill treatment of political prisoners. These prisoners are often deprived of food and water, whilst guards are known to abuse them both physically and mentally. Many are drugged, left naked for weeks on end or kept in cages where they can barely move. Some resort to self-mutilation in the hope of being granted an early release.

Such treatment has contributed to the rapid decline in health of the many cases of concern to English PEN. In fact, one of the twenty one writers, journalists and librarians still detained almost six years after the 2003 'Black Spring' crackdown on dissidents, reportedly greeted Obama's announcement by saying "When will the world open its eyes and say that the other Guantanamos should be closed?"

Fancy there being another 300 Gitmos in such a small island. Would you ever have guessed? I check the press freedom chart and find Iceland, Luxemburg and Norway sharing no 1 spot. UK is at 23 and rising (equal with Hungary), though if you do it simply as points totals, UK is equal tenth. As you go down you find: France (35), Italy (44) Israel proper (47), Chile (56), dropping through Brazil (82), Bahrain (96), Venezuela (113), Malaysia (132), Russia (141), the bottom of the table being rounded off with, in descending order, Iran, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Burma, Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea as rock bottom.

As International PEN point out the greatest press freedom is associated not with prosperity but with peace. Has Cuba been at war this past fifty years? Has China?

Reporters without Borders say:

“The world’s closed countries, governed by the worst press freedom predators, continue to muzzle their media at will, with complete impunity, while organisations such as the UN lose all authority over their members,”

As a point of interest the UN Human Rights Council comprises 47 states of which 19 are in positions below 100, with another 7 below 70. It includes Russia, China, Cuba, Malaysia, Azerbaijan and etc etc. That constitutes a majority. They are guaranteeing your human rights.

But hey, no one's perfect.



20 comments:

Mark Granier said...

Interesting. I see Ireland is right up there in the top ten. A shame our political health is not on a par with our freedom to report; is in another country altogether.

Poet in Residence said...

Interesting to note that the USA at 119th is below Venezuela at 114th. Can this really be true?

George S said...

That's USA abroad, Gwilym. Not sure what that means, but presumably US administered areas, meaning Guantanamo Bay. The USA in itself is at joint 36th, just as the two different Israel figures must be for Israel proper and Israel West Bank / Gaza.

The Plump said...

As International PEN point out the greatest press freedom is associated not with prosperity but with peace. Has Cuba been at war this past fifty years? Has China?

From Peace and Violence by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The 'peace-war' opposition embodies a logical fault. The whole of the thesis is opposed to only a part of the anti-thesis. War is a mass phenomenon - concentrated, clamorous and clear-cut, but it is by no means the only expression of unceasing world-wide violence. The logically balanced and genuine moral opposites are peace-violence.

And

To achieve not just a brief postponement of the threat of war, but a real peace, a genuine peace erected on sound foundations, it is necessary to fight the 'quiet', hidden forms of violence no less fiercely than the 'noisy' kinds. The aim must be not only to stop the rockets and cannons, but also to set the limits of state violence at the threshold where the need to defend society's members ceases. The aim must be to outlaw from the human condition the very idea that some are permitted to use violence regardless of justice, law and mutual agreements.

Michelle said...

Tonight, I imagine "cellos sprouting dark green tongues".

George S said...

The logically balanced and genuine moral opposites are peace-violence.

That is good, Peter. Harder to formalise - as Solzhenitsyn says - in the sense that war is a (relatively) declared state of affairs and 'quiet' forms of violence are, well, quiet.

How does that relate to the 300 Guantanamos in Cuba? I expect Cuba is an orderly society in the way that many authoritarian states are, and I expect the state believes that all those in the prisons are legally in prison. So is there a further distinction between 'legally' violent and 'illegally' violent states that would involve taking stock of constitutions?

My point was- partly - that the other three-hundred Cuban camps seem to dwell in another world from the one in which Gitmo is a great evil (Not that Gitmo is not an evil, of course. I am a firm believer in the principle: We should be better than that.)

All this would, eventually, lead me back to Israel, down a fairly familiar path, which is why I don't take that path now.

Mark Granier said...

300 hellholes does seem a LOT. Would I ever have guessed? Only if I put my mind to doing a little basic research on Cuban human rights violations.

It doesn't surprise me all that much though. I never imagined the Cuban justice system to be above reproach. Other central and south American regimes were guilty of horrendous slaughter and cheapening of human lives, the worst of them often supported enthusiastically by the the US with it's 'Chicago School' economics.

Come to that, I never imagined the US justice system to be above reproach (American prisons are notoriously brutal).

However, what makes Gitmo (distinctively and perversely) Gitmo is the fact that its very reason for existence is to avoid the annoyances of US Justice (that fiddly stuff about prisoners' rights). No doubt those other 300 Cuban prisons were well-known to the CIA (and therefore Bush/Cheney). Who knows? Maybe they provided further encouragement and inspiration for the various techniques and procedures that have come to light.

You say: "My point was- partly - that the other three-hundred Cuban camps seem to dwell in another world from the one in which Gitmo is a great evil (Not that Gitmo is not an evil, of course. I am a firm believer in the principle: We should be better than that.)"

Gitmo IS in another world, both figuratively and literally. That, and the fact that it actually can be closed by the US, is what makes it special. And I am very glad to see that Obama is at last attempting to dismantle it.

George S said...

I agree, Mark. All good points. Every one of them.

But it remains that it is we - you and I - who have to do the enquiring. We don't have to enquire about Gitmo. And one exposed Gitmo is, numerically if nothing else, better than 300 unexposed ones.

What I do resist is the constant equivalencing and writing off of what is 'not our concern' because it doesn't fit the simple template. As far as I can judge, in popular left-liberal terms (please, sir, I am left-liberal, or think I am), Cuba is still an object of romance, whereas the USA is what Chomsky-Pilger and the broad wake following them would have it be. You might have seen Pilger on Obama in the New Statesman.

I don't see how 300 Gitmos makes any place an object of romance.

The Plump said...

I expect Cuba is an orderly society in the way that many authoritarian states are, and I expect the state believes that all those in the prisons are legally in prison. So is there a further distinction between 'legally' violent and 'illegally' violent states that would involve taking stock of constitutions?

Two comments: The first is that authoritarian societies are often only orderly on the surface. Underneath there is corruption, casual brutality, chaotic bureaucracy and the practice of strategies for survival in a dysfunctional society. Thus what the outsider sees is what is presented by the regime, not what the insider knows. The issue here is visibility.

The second is the issue of legality. If the law of the state punishes people for dissent then their imprisonment is legal, but unjust. Thus, Solzhenitsyn's distinction should have a stronger focus on justice than on law, which we should understand in the light of human rights and in a humanist instinct that cries out, "this is wrong"!

Mark Granier said...

"I don't see how 300 Gitmos makes any place an object of romance."

Nor do I George, but I would never presume to romanticise Cuba. I have heard that it is a lovely country to visit and that the people are very friendly, but of course that doesn't mean that it is a haven of equality and justice (though I wonder if the prisons were much better under Batista).

George S said...

Have I shown any sings of nostalgia for Batista, Mark?

That's precisely the equivalent reaction I mean. The quick rush to find the equivalent at some other place or time, a move permitted to some and to others. I oint to 300 Gitmos and the reaction comes: Ah but Baptista!

So we can write off those 300 Gitmos, right? Or at least not make too much of them, while righteously (and rightly, I might add) protesting against Guantanamo Bay.

Mark Granier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Granier said...

Whoa George. My remark on Batista was an aside, an afterthought, which is why it was in brackets.

300 hellish prisons on Cuba sounds horrific (though I have already stated why they are NOT Gitmos). Who is writing off anything? ALL abuses of human rights should be of concern: in Cuba, Rwanda, the US, Ireland, Europe, Russia etc. Humanity has always demonstrated an excellent capability for violence (the oldest profession is far less likely to be a prostitute than a soldier).

I will pass on the latest bad news about 300 abusive prisons on Cuba. What else should I do? Do you want to start a petition? I'll sign it. Picket the Cuban Embassy? Why not? 300 hellholes is bad, very bad. How many more of these places exist in the world? Thousands, I imagine. I did a quick check and one of the first articles I found was this one, which gives just a sampler, five examples of the world's 'Most Notorious' prisons, one of which is in France and another in Israel: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4641

If you'll excuse the equivalence, I am sure there are ones just as awful (if not worse) in Iran, Gaza, Syria etc.

What are you going to do about them? What do you think I should do? How consistently outraged should we be?

NB
had to delete the last comment because of some errors (no edit function)

George S said...

Ah, consistently outraged, Mark. Consistency is a problem. No one can be consistently outraged and for most of us writers the world of events enters our writing at some, often far from overt level. It goes into our sense of what the world is and how it behaves. It is, for better or worse, part of the materia poetica.

What I complain about is a lack of consistency in the furious seizing on one example - one that ties in with our favourite world-view - and the ignoring of others more numerous and worse. I think one should mentally oppose the easy template.

I have not protested outside the Cuban embassy. I would be astonished if anyone in England - apart from a few expat Cubans - did. And that is rather the point.

The reason I wrote the post is because I received the PEN letter and because it is the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban revolution. Hence Cuba.

George S said...

ps That's odd. I have an edit (Preview) function at this end.

Mark Granier said...

That's fine George, but I didn't furiously seize any example, and I don't personally know anyone (not among my friends or relations that is) who seizes any of these examples furiously. I am just heartened that Obama has made it clear that he intends to close one of those 301 hellholes; the one, in fact, that is known as Gitmo.

George S said...

This is not about bad people behaving badly, Mark: it is about the nicest people, intelligent people one would generally admire and like, instinctively believing that criticising Cuba (unlike Israel) is wrong. That it is not done. And when criticism is made of Cuba pointing out how there are places as bad and worse and that, often, chief among the bad and worse are the USA and Israel. (I see you point out one bad Israeli prison in your last.)

How rare is criticism of Cuba! How many nice people find all the evil of the world concentrated in the USA and Israel!

This does not make them any less nice in other respects most of the time. And when I say these things I am not talking about you. I just mean a lot of people. Friends I know better than I know, say, you.

In the case of your comments, no, there is nothing furious about them, but the instinct to divert attention elsewhere, to draw equivalences is there.

300 Gitmos in a smallish island as the world goes does seem rather lot. Just saying, like. Chiefly because others, the nice people, don't seem to be saying it, like. I myself am perfectly nice.

Mark Granier said...

"300 Gitmos in a smallish island as the world goes does seem rather lot."

No argument there George. 300 hellholes sounds, as I said, horrific. And thanks for passing on the information.

Poet in Residence said...

George,
re your Comment at Post 3, I guess that is was is meant by standards and double standards. But then I ask myself: so why don't more countries have these quasi-categories, like an extra drawer for odd socks?

Poet in Residence said...

In some countries the press has press freedom but unfortunately not the will. Use it lose it Mr Editor!