Human Rights Watch calls Raul Castro no better than Fidel

Cuba's government remains as repressive under Raul Castro as it was under his brother Fidel, according to the first in-depth report of the island's human rights since the younger Castro took power.

Titled New Castro, Same Cuba, the report by Human Rights Watch details a skein of cruel pressures on dissidents, relatives and friends that contradict initial hopes that Raúl Castro would be different.

"Castro inherited a system of abusive laws and institutions. . . . Rather than dismantle this repressive machinery, Raúl Castro has kept it firmly in place and fully active,'' said the report, unveiled Wednesday in Washington.

It noted some changes in tactics since Raúl Castro officially took power in early 2008: The growing use of short-term "arbitrary detentions'' -- 532 reported in the first half of 2009 versus 325 in all of 2007 -- and at least 40 prosecutions for "dangerousness,'' a charge less often used by Fidel Castro.

"But repression in Cuba under Raúl is not so different than it was under Fidel,'' the report's researcher and author, Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch's Americas section, told El Nuevo Herald. "If you're a dissenter, your experience is still going to be abysmal.''

Although the report emphasized that "there is no question the Cuban government bears full and exclusive responsibility for the abuses,'' it also proposed Washington lift the U.S. embargo and forge a multinational effort to improve human rights on the island.

Steinberg said Human Rights Watch undertook the inquiry because of the perception that the new Castro had improved the situation in Cuba, Cuba's warming relations with Europe and the effort to readmit it to the Organization of American States.

"We wanted to put on the table where Cuba stands on human rights,'' he said in a telephone interview from Washington.

Cuba has long justified its repression of dissidents as a necessary protection from U.S. hostility. "However, in the scores of cases . . . examined for this report, this argument falls flat,'' the 120-page document noted.

Steinberg, who spent two weeks in Cuba this summer doing interviews in seven of the island's 14 provinces, worked in secret because the Havana government did not reply to Human Rights Watch requests for meetings to discuss the human rights situation.

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