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FSU Project Portrays Plight of Political Prisoners in Cuba

Courtesy of Florida State University

Raoul G. Cantero II
Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul G. Cantero II speaks at the launch of the web site established for the plight of political prisoners in Cuba.

While the world was focused on the war in Iraq last spring, the Castro regime moved quickly to detain, convict and imprison 75 political dissidents in Cuba in one of the most severe crackdowns on that country's struggling democracy movement in decades.

The Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, in collaboration with other leading human rights advocacy organizations in the United States and abroad, hopes to draw international attention to the plight of the prisoners through a new Web site it created with faculty and students in FSU's School of Information Studies. The human rights center funded the site.

Terry Coonan, the center's executive director, and Jane Robbins, dean of FSU's School of Information Studies, launched the Web site, www.ruleoflawandcuba.fsu.edu, September 2. Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul G. Cantero III, grandson of former Cuban president Fulgencio Batista, who was overthrown by Fidel Castro in 1959, also took part in the announcement. An FSU alumnus, Cantero earned his bachelor's degree in 1982 followed by a law degree from Harvard in 1985.

"These dissidents received extraordinarily harsh sentences of anywhere between six and 28 years for simply expressing democratic ideals," Coonan said. "We are launching this Web site to promote a greater understanding of the laws and proceedings under which these political dissidents were convicted."

The Castro regime arrested the first group of dissidents, including many independent journalists, on March 18, 2003, for "disrespect" of the revolution. After more arrests and subsequent trials, many of the dissidents were sentenced on April 7. Cuba's highest court upheld the convictions in June.

"As a Cuban-American whose family escaped a totalitarian regime, I have learned to appreciate and defend democratic values and the rule of law," said Cantero. "I know the price a society pays when it lacks freedom to speak, freedom to worship and freedom to dissent."

The Web site includes a list of all 75 dissidents and the sentences they received, the laws used to convict them, various reports from international human rights organizations and other official government reports relating to the crackdown, including a report from the U.S. Department of State. The Web site also includes, to the best extent possible, the Castro regime's response to the international criticism of the crackdown.

"We are determined to avoid the rhetoric often associated with the debate over U.S./Cuba policy," said Mark Schlakman, the center's program director.

"These issues transcend the current status of U.S./Cuba relations. Official documentation from the regime, which is now accessible through this Web site, provides compelling evidence of the Cuban government's disdain for the rule of law."

The creation of the site was both a valuable learning experience for the information studies students involved as well as a good example of the importance of the work that information studies scholars and professionals do, said Robbins.

"Experiential learning is an essential part of how we teach our students," she said. "When we can give them a real-life experience where the stakes are so high for humanity at large, that's really exciting. We have always been interested in working with the human rights center because we believe that documentation and access to information is a critical part of human freedom."

The Center for the Advancement of Human Rights is an interdisciplinary, non-partisan center established in 2000 to create human rights courses at the university, sponsor student internships at home and abroad and support human rights advocates and non-governmental organizations throughout the world.