The Magazine

Cuba's 5-Fingered Diplomacy

Assault and battery in Geneva.

May 3, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 32 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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"I DIDN'T GO to the U.N. to get into a fist fight," said Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba--or, as he is known in Havana, "lackey to the United States, traitor to the motherland, capitalist pig, terrorist, and CIA agent." Calzon went to Geneva to deliver two three-minute speeches on Cuba's human rights record to the 60th annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights last week. He wound up unconscious on the floor.

On the day the resolution condemning Cuba passed by a single vote, Calzon was standing outside the chamber where the commission meets. "It's like in the lobby of a theater. There are 60 or 80 people, lots of people," he said. A young man ran down an escalator and approached Calzon from behind, clasped his hands, and struck Calzon on the back of the head. Calzon fell, unconscious. American ambassador Kevin Moley witnessed the incident and ran after the assailant. Two Swiss guards got to the man first, however, and tackled him.

Cuban ambassador Jorge Mora Godoy arrived on the scene and demanded the assailant be released into his custody, but at Moley's insistence, the guards led away the young man--who turned out to be an accredited member of the Cuban delegation.

When Calzon came to, U.N. security officials told him that a crowd of pro-Castro delegates had gathered around shouting and had tried to kick him where he lay on the floor. Another Swiss guard had pulled a mace canister and cleared the area.

"There was a provocation from Frank Calzon against one woman in the Cuban delegation," said Mora Godoy later, employing a charge he has lobbed at other U.N. diplomats. Ambassador Moley filed a statement and has said he wants to press charges. Since everyone involved has diplomatic immunity, however, it is unlikely the Cuban delegate can expect anything worse than ejection from the country by the Swiss.

In his official report of the assault, U.S. delegation head Richard Williamson cites "a series of incidents and intimidation" by the Cuban delegation. The attack on Calzon was the fourth provocation directed toward members of the U.S. delegation during the session that ended on Friday. The others, as related by Williamson, included a drive-by threat ("We're watching you") and a "scuffle" over position papers that had to be broken up by a guard. Freedom House representatives chime in with their own stories of chest tapping and muttered menace.

Jeane Kirkpatrick, who headed last year's U.S. delegation to Geneva, says of Cuba's unusual behavior, "They have an obsessive desire to control the symbolic environment in which they live." In the case of Frank Calzon, who has long been her colleague and friend, "someone, some speech escaped their control. . . . It's enormously difficult for them to bear."

"They're very effective," says Kirkpatrick, "at making common cause with other dictatorships in U.N. bodies where they hang out." The issue that presumably pushed the Cuban delegate to violence was a resolution brought before the commission by Honduras. It asked Cuba to admit a U.N. human rights inspector and "deplored" the treatment of 75 dissidents jailed last March, many under sentences of 20 years or more. The vote on the resolution was close, 22-21. Russia and China joined Cuba and several African countries in voting no, and 10 members abstained, including Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina.

Though the annual Cuba resolution generally does not contain the word "condemn" and is phrased in positive (or positively Orwellian, depending on who you ask) terms, Cuba regularly wages a year-long campaign against it and sends a "huge" delegation, says Mark Falcoff, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a member of last year's U.S. delegation. Approximately 25 delegates from Cuba descend on Geneva to fill four seats in the chamber, along with a huge crowd of secondary participants from Cuban non-governmental organizations and media.

How do all those extra people in the entourage fill their days? "Some are translators; winning over Russian diplomats takes lots of chatting," says Falcoff. The rest? Well, they might not exactly be diplomats by training. Cuban embassies and missions have long housed agents of the DGI, Cuba's answer to the KGB, and Cuba regularly accredits NGOs that are actually state organs, like the Federation of Cuban Women, for participation at the U.N. Rumors about DGI agents with diplomatic passports were confirmed by one of the highest ranking defectors from Cuba, Alcibiades Hidalgo, who was fired from his position as Cuban ambassador to the U.N. in 1993 after he objected to the use of Cuba's diplomatic mission as home base for its intelligence operation. Soon after, he fled to the United States.

Also present in large numbers at the commission's annual six-week session are cameras from the Cuban state press. Falcoff says, "Cuba regards this as a terribly important event, though I can't imagine they give two hoots about what the U.N. thinks." After the resolution passes every year, Castro reliably declares that it doesn't apply to him. The events at the commission may be "a psychodrama staged for Cuban television," ventures Falcoff. Cuba makes use of the "theater" in Geneva to soothe the "insecurities that all undemocratic governments feel."

Castro recently turned down offers of a more favorable tariff status and extra humanitarian aid from the E.U. because Europe insisted that human rights inspectors be allowed into Cuba as a condition of the deals. Castro also refuses access to and regularly denounces Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Red Cross, and other human rights groups.

He may be wise to do so. Kirkpatrick, Falcoff, and Calzon make the same point from slightly different angles: Castro would love nothing more than to reach beyond Cuba's shores and suppress all criticism of his regime, to control discussion about his policies and practices totally. That, as Kirkpatrick notes, "is the essence of totalitarianism." But when he extended his efforts to squash dissent into the lobby of the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, history suggests Castro may have done his cause more harm than good.

In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts Republican, was severely beaten with a metal-topped cane by Congressman Preston Brooks, kin to one of the senators whose pro-slavery stance Sumner had denounced two days before in a powerful speech on the floor. Brooks, like the young Cuban, snuck up on his victim from behind. And like the Cuban assailant, Brooks suffered little more than formal censure for his actions. It took Sumner almost three years to recover from the bloody assault, but today the incident is in every high school history book, alongside the words that had stirred the ire of the pro-slavery faction: "What are trial by jury, habeas corpus, the ballot-box, the right of petition, the liberty of Kansas, your liberty, sir, or mine, to one who lends himself, not merely to the support at home, but to the propagandism abroad, of that preposterous wrong, which denies even the right of a man to himself! Such a cause can be maintained only by a practical subversion of all rights."

Sumner warned that failure to do the right thing about slavery would sully the Senate's "good name in history forever more." Calzon similarly underlines the contrast between the sordid assault and the exalted mission of the place where it happened, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Coming just after debate about whether allegations of repressive practices in Cuba were true, the attack, Calzon said, was "an example that cannot be ignored. This did not happen in the middle of the night in a dark alley."

Moley expanded on that theme to the Miami Herald, one of the few news outlets to cover the story: "It was a vicious punch. If you act that way in the U.N. . . . God forbid, what do you do in your own country where there is absolutely no accountability?"

Frank Calzon knows. "If I was attacked in Cuba," he said, "it would have been more than one punch."

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.