GENEVA (Reuters) - The Castro government’s easing of foreign travel restrictions on Cubans has not led to greater freedoms on the island, a leading dissident said on Wednesday.
Elizardo Sanchez said 19 opposition activists had been allowed to leave since a new exit policy was introduced on January 14. Dozens more would go in the next few weeks, he said.
But the Communist government, in power since 1959, was keeping strict control on dissident voices at home, he said.
“They calculate it will be freedom of expression for people outside Cuba but the voices will not be reproduced in Cuba. They control all communications, radio, newspaper, local and international television, and access to Internet,” Sanchez said.
A total of 92 political prisoners were currently held in Cuban jails, which the International Committee of the Red Cross has not been allowed visit since 1989, he said. A further 350 were held in short-term detention on political grounds.
Sanchez is president of the Havana-based independent Cuban Commission of Human Rights and for years has been one of the most prominent opposition figures tolerated by the government.
President Raul Castro has introduced some economic and other reforms since taking over Cuba’s leadership from his brother Fidel in 2008 but they have stressed it will not stray from the revolutionary path.
Sanchez, who said he had spent nearly 12 years in jails and was on his first foreign trip in more than a decade, said he worried he would face reprisals when returned to Cuba in June.
But he said: “Every day there are more human rights activists in Cuba. The good thing is that they are active inspite of fear of reprisals.”
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council, said the new travel laws had helped improve relations between Cubans on the island and exiles. Interior Ministry official Marco Rogelio said no arbitrary detentions or torture in its jails took place.
The debate and non-binding recommendations of the U.N. Human Rights Council aim to train a spotlight on abuses and pressure governments to make reforms.
Britain, Spain and France urged Cuba to allow freedom of expression and U.N. rights investigators to visit. U.S. ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe said that Cubans seeking multi-party elections and press freedom were punished.
Rodriguez accused the United States of making relentless attempts to get rid of the Communist government.
He hit back at the United States for its own human rights record, accusing it of “deaths and torture” at the military prison at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo, southeastern Cuba.
“That prison and military base should be shut down and that territory should be returned to Cuba,” he said.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Angus MacSwan