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MEETING: Old Rivals Find a New Battlefield : Old Rivals Find a New Battlefield: U.N. Human Rights Meeting

July 10, 1988|GEORGE GEDDA | Associated Press

WASHINGTON — It was less bloody than the Bay of Pigs, less suspenseful than the Cuban missile crisis. But a diplomatic confrontation this year plainly showed the unchanging nature of one of the world's more enduring rivalries: the United States versus Cuba.

The scene was the annual U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, and the outcome of the panel's 7-week winter session might appear mundanely unremarkable: A commission delegation, at Cuba's invitation, will visit the island sometime this summer to examine the state of human rights.

But that action culminated more than a year of extraordinary efforts by the United States to call Cuba to account on the rights issue and equally intense maneuvering by Cuba to counter the U.S. campaign.

There was enough ambiguity in the outcome to permit both sides to claim victory.

Allegations Traded

"Pure gold," said Dennis Goodman, a State Department official, summing up the result.

"The most overwhelming political and moral defeat the Reagan Administration ever suffered" in Geneva, a Cuban Communist Party daily said.

The session was memorable for a number of reasons. There were Cuban allegations that the United States tried to bribe commission members in a frantic pursuit of votes and American assertions that countries that voted against Cuba could face a wave of Cuban-sponsored terrorism.

There was also the presence of a former political prisoner from Cuba as chief U.S. delegate at Geneva--an appointment that stunned President Fidel Castro. He said the United States was allowing itself to be represented by a convicted terrorist and called it "shameless."

The struggle brought into focus the U.S. view that Cuba has a deplorable yet largely ignored human rights record and Cuba's own contention that no Third World country has done more to protect the rights of its citizens than has Cuba since the 1959 revolution.

Vigorous Campaigns

As the State Department sees it, there is "an aggressive, systematic and institutionalized denial of human rights in virtually every form" in Cuba.

Then there is Castro's view: "There is no single country in which human rights are respected more carefully."

Both countries expended large diplomatic and political resources in their campaigns. Commission members agonized over what they regarded as a no-win choice.

That dilemma was avoided when a resolution proposed by the United States was superseded by an alternate proposal drawn up by Cuba in cooperation with four Latin American countries and introduced during the final days of the session.

Resolution Battle

The U.S. resolution was drafted in moderate language in an attempt by American representatives to garner broad support. At no point did it directly accuse Cuba of violating human rights.

But Cuba lobbied vigorously against the resolution, apparently to avoid the stigma of approval for a measure sponsored by its archenemy.

Working in secret, Cuba and Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Peru came up with the alternative proposal, calling for a visit to Cuba at Cuba's invitation this summer.

This alternative eventually was approved with U.S. support. At first, however, U.S. delegates reacted with surprise and anger to the new proposal, leaving the impression that they would have preferred an up-or-down vote on their own.

Countries Spared Choice

Many Third World countries that felt caught in the middle of U.S.-Cuban political war were elated at being spared having to choose between Washington and Havana.

The Cubans maintained that they had nothing to hide and that they showed their good will by inviting a commission delegation for an inspection tour. They said they would never be pressured into accepting a human rights investigating team and that they interpreted the withdrawal of the U.S. proposal as a victory.

"They (the United States) sustained the most overwhelming defeat that could have been inflicted on them," said Raul Roa Kouri, head of the Cuban delegation.

That claim seemed a bit exaggerated. U.S. officials pointed out that were it not for the U.S. effort to highlight the Cuban issue, no alternative proposal would have been introduced.

'Triumph for Rights'

Armando Valladares, the Cuban-born former political prisoner who led the U.S. delegation, said, "We consider it a triumph for human rights."

The Reagan Administration's appointment of Valladares as delegation head, with the rank of ambassador, contributed greatly to the contentious atmosphere at Geneva.

The Administration saw in Valladares a symbol of what it regarded as the area of Cuba's greatest vulnerability on the human rights issue: its treatment of political prisoners.

Valladares spent 22 years in Cuban prisons before his release in 1982 through the intercession of French President Francois Mitterrand. He described his long ordeal in a 1986 book, "Against All Hope," a brutal account of the systematic abuse, including torture, that he claimed to have suffered during his long confinement.

Written in Blood

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