Brazilian leader under pressure on rights ahead of Cuba trip

SAO PAULO — Dilma Rousseff arrives in Cuba on Monday on her first visit there as Brazil's president, and she's facing pressure to take a stronger and more public stance on human rights violations that continue under the Cuban government.

Rousseff meets with Raul Castro on Tuesday.

Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, a government critic, sought to meet Rousseff. She tried to compare herself to Brazil's leader back when Rousseff was a young Marxist guerrilla jailed and tortured by Brazil's military dictatorship.

Sanchez told Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo that after seeing a photo recently of a 22-year-old Rousseff being interrogated by a military court during Brazil's dictatorship, she was moved. "That's how I feel at this moment," Sanchez said.

Cuban dissident groups like Las Damas de Blanco also have requested meetings with Brazil's leader.

Rousseff's administration has sent one signal that it's sympathetic to some of these concerns. Brazil's Foreign Ministry issued a tourist visa last week to Sanchez to travel to Brazil next month to attend the launch of a documentary film in the northern state of Bahia.

Sanchez, however, first needs government authorization to leave Cuba. Rousseff is not planning to lobby on behalf of Sanchez with Castro, nor is she scheduled to meet with Sanchez or other members of opposition groups. The trip's focus is economic relations.

Brazil-Cuba bilateral trade reached a record $642 million in 2011, up 31 percent from 2010.

The Brazilian company Odebrecht is working on construction of the Port of Mariel in Cuba, and Brazil's development bank is financing it.

"We hope that she is interested not just in the state of construction of the Mariel port but the state of construction of citizens' rights in Cuba," Sanchez said.

While applauding some of Rousseff's early moves, many activists from developing countries would like to see greater Brazilian leadership on human rights issues. They range from Iranian democracy activists to Burmese dissidents who are trying to appeal to Brazil and Rousseff's personal story.

For example, Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, visited Brasilia last February to lobby for support for a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva last March to create a special rapporteur to investigate human rights abuses in Iran.

He said that he was warmly received by Foreign Ministry officials and a Rousseff foreign policy adviser, Marco Aurelio Garcia. Brazil ended up supporting the resolution.

Another activist looking to Brazil is Thaung Htun, the representative to the UN for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma. He also visited Brasilia and met with officials last year.

He said in an interview that even with recent reforms in his country, much remains to be done there. He also said that his country must be careful to not come across as supported by only the United States and Europe. "We are a developing country, and we want solidarity from countries in the south," he said.

Cuba, however, is a unique case for Brazil. The two countries have regional ties and there's friendship between Cuban government officials and Brazil's Workers Party, to which Rousseff belongs.

Yet for some, this is one reason that Brazil should take a stronger position.

Lucia Nader, executive director of Conectas, a Sao Paulo-based human rights group, said, "It is important in principle that President Rousseff meets with people who are claiming that the government is abusive and that violations are taking place."

Rousseff has tried to carve a different path on human rights. Yet while a few of her decisions have drawn a lot of media coverage, her foreign policy is not considered a significant break from that of her predecessor.

For example Brazil, at the time a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, abstained last November on a vote condemning Iran for human rights violations. It has done the same regarding Syria, together with India and South Africa.

Nader gives Rousseff's first-year foreign policy a "mixed assessment on human rights," citing what she believes is "a double standard on Iran" by supporting the creation of the special rapporteur but abstaining on the resolution condemning violations "even though the situation had not changed."

Brazilian officials, however, say that these positions are consistent with Brazil foreign policy traditions, such as non-intervention, consensus-building and cooperation.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday, Human Rights Watch head Kenneth Roth criticized Brazil for its abstention on Syria.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota responded by saying that "abstention here is not abstaining from condemning violence against unarmed civilians or abstaining from siding with those who seek greater participation in the political process.

"On the contrary," he said, "abstention here is ensuring policy space for diplomacy, for negotiations, for dialogue and for progress that does not breed violence."

Brazil still believes that often these resolutions lead to military intervention and is fearful of another Iraq.

Brazil also believes that the current assessment of human rights is too selective and politically biased. Officials often point out that wealthy countries or U.S. allies are not scrutinized the same way for violations as a country such as Iran is.

Many activists share some of these views but still wish Brazil would do more.

"We also agree that the international community should speak out more about Saudi Arabia," Ghaemi said, citing an example that is often used. But "that is not a reason to cop out of taking positions on Iran or other countries."

(Sreeharsha is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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