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Is Castro's Death a Turning Point for Human Rights?


People place candles beside a picture of Fidel Castro, as part of a tribute, following the announcement of the death of the Cuban revolutionary leader, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Nov. 26, 2016.

People place candles beside a picture of Fidel Castro, as part of a tribute, following the announcement of the death of the Cuban revolutionary leader, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Nov. 26, 2016.

Six decades after declaring history would absolve him, Fidel Castro's life has ended and his troubled human rights legacy can be considered.

Cuban-Americans took to the streets of Little Havana on Saturday, saying the passing of one man could be the beginning of hope for the many who had suffered under him.

"A bad dictator that had Cuba under oppression and repression for almost six decades is no longer with us, and that will give an opportunity to the Cuban people to start the journey to freedom and democracy," Cuban-American Jose Sanchez told VOA as he celebrated with hundreds of other Cuban-Americans in Miami.

Under Castro's rule, three generations of Cuban people lacked nearly all basic civil and political freedoms, including the rights to expression, assembly and association. The communist government routinely detained journalists and dissenters while denying independent human rights monitoring organizations access inside the country.

"This is a man who is deeply admired in the rest of the region for standing up to the United States," said Eduardo Gamarra, professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University. "But at the same time, and it's very important to remember, he also presided over a tyrannical regime, a regime that was responsible for the deaths by firing squad of hundreds of people and somebody who jailed people for their political views."

FILE - U.S. and Cuban flags hang on a wall at the U.S pavilion during the Havana International Fair, Havana, Cuba, Nov. 2, 2015.

FILE - U.S. and Cuban flags hang on a wall at the U.S pavilion during the Havana International Fair, Havana, Cuba, Nov. 2, 2015.

U.S.-Cuba relations

Even the restoration of relations with the United States, starting in December 2014, didn't loosen limitations on freedoms.

According to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report, internet access in Cuba was still severely limited despite the opening of 35 Wi-Fi hotspots nationwide, and the government continued to control nearly all media outlets. The number of jailed dissidents remained consistent at between 8,000 and 9,000 prisoners each year.

Now it will be up to Raul Castro, who had gradually taken over control of the communist island nation starting in 2006, to decide whether his brother's death marks the end of an era.

"The symbol is dead," Guadalupe Correa Cabrera, professor of public affairs and security studies at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, said of Castro's death.

Cabrera said Raul Castro's control over the country had already opened the door for normalization of relations with the United States, and with the death of Fidel marking the end of an era, even more opportunities could arise.

"He needs to change his approach and allow the country to be more open," Cabrera said.

FILE - Berta Soler, leader of The Ladies in White, an opposition group, is detained by Cuban security personnel after a weekly anti-government protest march, in Havana, Sept. 13, 2015.

FILE - Berta Soler, leader of The Ladies in White, an opposition group, is detained by Cuban security personnel after a weekly anti-government protest march, in Havana, Sept. 13, 2015.

Human rights

Human rights concerns have long shaped U.S. relations with Cuba, playing an often crucial role in presidential politics. In the hours after Castro's death, many U.S. lawmakers took to Twitter to recall Castro's legacy and express the hope his passing would begin a new chapter for the country.

"While some may wish to paint a rosy picture of communism and this dictator's leadership, any account that ignores his bloody atrocities and human rights abuses, economic persecution and support for terrorism abroad does no justice to the survivors and victims of his legacy," U.S. Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee on foreign affairs, said in a statement released Saturday.

Even as the aging leader slipped from public view, the memory of his rule remained alive in the minds of the generations he marked — a psychological toll that could have very real consequences as the nation moves forward.

"We knew that as long as the dictator who founded the Cuban revolution was alive and in Cuba, change would be very difficult. But now this represents an opportunity — especially for those freedom fighters in Cuba, the opposition leaders who have been risking their lives, their security, their well-being, for years to fight for a better country. Now they're going to be stronger," U.S. Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida told VOA.

But change in the wake of Castro's death could come at a steep cost, exacted by the communist government still in place.

"The primary objective of the Cuban regime today is the preservation of power as long as possible, and while dissidents still have the potential to create the kind of unrest that might unsettle a Cuban leadership, they'll continue to repress," said Brian Fonseca, director at Florida International University's Public Policy Institute.

FILE - A young woman walks near graffiti that reads "Freedom" in Havana, Feb. 21, 2016.

FILE - A young woman walks near graffiti that reads "Freedom" in Havana, Feb. 21, 2016.

Create 'fissures'

"If the social fissures sort of begin to manifest because of changes in the emotional temper of the Cuban people, and if that does occur, given that preservation of power is most critical to the Cuban political elite, then I think you may find political repression going up, at least in the short term," Fonseca said.

Back in the streets of Little Havana, many realized the end of the era of Castro is in many ways just the beginning.

"We're here honoring all our grandparents and that entire generation that wasn't here to experience it today, but for them we're here, and hopefully this is the beginning of freedom for Cuba," said Lissette Calderon, a Cuban-American woman who has never set foot on the island but brought her children out to witness the historic moment.

"The people of Cuba do not have free elections; there's no democracy. I think those of us aren't going to rest until we see freedom for the people of Cuba," Calderon said.

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    Katherine Gypson

    Katherine Gypson is a reporter for VOA’s News Center in Washington, D.C.  Prior to joining VOA in 2013, Katherine produced documentary and public affairs programming in Afghanistan, Tunisia and Turkey. She also produced and co-wrote a 12-episode road-trip series for Pakistani television exploring the United States during the 2012 presidential election. She holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from American University. Follow her @kgyp

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