On the eve of the visit by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Fidel Castro government has announced an end to
firing squad executions. Known as "the wall"
("paredón"), as in "going to the wall," the decision is in response to complaints
by the international community and the Catholic church about the practice.
Cuba has now gone so far as to create a commission to study the death penalty and could even abolish it in the
future. All this follows three executions in April and harsh sentences for 75 others who opposed the Castro regime. The three
men executed at that time were accused of attempting to hijack a boat to escape the island. On the day they were executed
the mother of one of them committed suicide in a gesture of desperation.
According to a Cuban Baptist minister, Raul Soares, who is a member of congress and supporter of the Castro
regime, there is now public sentiment in favor of ending the death penalty. Soares is a personal friend of Brazilian presidential
aide, Frei Betto, a Catholic priest. Both Betto and Soares are connected to the Theology of Liberation movement.
In 1994, during the last revision of the Cuban constitution, Soares was the only member of the Cuban congress to
vote against the death penalty. Soares reports that at that time, Raul Castro, Fidel's brother, made a motion in favor of
abolishing executions but it was voted down.
Before last April's executions, there had not been an execution in Cuba for three years. The April executions caused
an uproar internationally. Pope John Paul II complained and many left wing intellectuals, such as José Saramago, the
Portuguese Nobel Prize winning author, went further and broke off relations with the Cuban dictator. In July the European Union
announced it was reducing economic and social assistance programs to Cuba.
Lula and Castro have much to talk about
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva arrives in Cuba, Friday, September 26. There are great expectations regarding the visit on
the part of the Cuban people as well as their leaders. Lula will be in the country for two days, meeting with business leaders,
politicians and authorities. Of course, the most important meetings will be with president Fidel Castro. On Friday, a state dinner is
scheduled. On Saturday, the two leaders will have a private meeting beginning around noon.
According to the Brazilian ambassador in Havana, Tilden Santiago, Lula and Castro have much to talk about and
their schedule was arranged so that they would have plenty of time to do just that.
Although it is not mentioned in public, the question of the death penalty will be dealt with in depth. The Brazilian
Worker's Party, which Lula belongs to and is now the biggest party in Brazil's Chamber of Deputies, is opposed to the death
penalty and always has been. Ambassador Tilden Santiago explains, "Cuba and Brazil have different historical backgrounds.
The question of the death penalty has to been examined in context."
Santiago also points out that a final decision on the death penalty in Cuba, like so much else there, is going to have
to have a counterpart in United States policy. That means, says the ambassador, that the US will have to treat Cubans who
commit crimes to get to the US like criminals instead of heroes.
The Brazilian ambassador strongly condemns the US embargo against Cuba, saying that after four decades the
island's economy shows signs of exhaustion. Suicides in Cuba are upthere have been 1,500 of them in the last 12 months.
Alcoholism is also on the rise. And there is the problem of Cuban youths who never knew what it was to live in Cuba before
Castro, and now wander the streets with little hope for the future.
Congressman and religious leader Soares says that the death penalty is not the only way to take somebody's life
away from them. "There is poverty and misery. An educational system that is negligent. There is human dignity that can be
destroyed. Those are really terrible instruments of death that affect many more people around the world [than firing
squads]," he says. Soares adds that it is important for the situation in Cuba to evolve. "There have to be advances, including the
area of human rights. Some advances have taken place since 1992. We need more," he concludes.
Vannildo Mendes works for Agência Brasil (AB), the official press agency of the Brazilian government.
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