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Believe it or not, Cuba is campaigning for a seat at the U.N. Human Rights Council | Opinion

Here’s one of the most outrageous things going on in the world of diplomacy: Cuba — which after its 2021 mass arrests of peaceful protesters has one of the highest populations of political prisoners in the world — is running for re-election as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

What’s just as crazy, it might get enough votes to secure its seat when the U.N. General Assembly meets in mid-October to elect new members to the 47-seat Geneva-based Council.

Four Latin American countries — Brazil, Cuba, Peru and the Dominican Republic — are running for the Council’s three Latin American seats whose terms expire at the end of this year.

“Sadly, based on the fact that Cuba has always been elected, you have to assume that they have good chances of winning again,” Hillel Neuer, head of the U.N. Watch monitoring group, told me.”But if the free world fights for it, Cuba can be defeated.”

It won’t be easy to prevent Cuba from winning the vote. Dictatorships go out of their way to win seats at the U.N. Human Rights Council in order to protect themselves against criticism for their human-rights abuses, and Cuba is doing just that.

Five of the 17 countries running for Council seats are dictatorships, including China, Russia and Cuba. And he 70% of the Council’s current members either are dictatorships or have poor human-rights records, U.N. Watch says.

This year, Cuba is campaigning especially hard to keep its seat at the Council. Last week, the regime opened a photo exhibit at the lobby of the U.N. headquarters in New York to try to portray itself as a rightful member of the Council, Cuba’s independent 14yMedio.com online magazine reported.

The exhibit included pictures of Cuba’s medical missions abroad, which human-rights groups have portrayed as modern-day slave trafficking.

Under Cuba’s government-to-government deals with Mexico and other countries, often brokered by the Pan-American Health Organization, the Cuban regime gets the physicians’ full wages, while it later pays the doctors only about 20% of their salaries.

A text introducing the regime’s photo exhibit, signed by Cuba’s ambassador to the U.N., Gerardo Peñalver Portal, claims that Cuba stands out for its “protection of human rights” and international cooperation.

In reality, Cuba is one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships. It has not allowed a free election nor freedom of the press since 1959, and arrested more than 1,000 mostly peaceful protesters during massive 2021 anti-government street demonstrations.

At least 381 of the peaceful protesters were sentenced to up to 25 years in prison. Some received long prison sentences for holding signs reading “Patria y Vida” — Homeland and Life — the title of a song that sought to counter late dictator Fidel Castro’s slogan “Fatherland or Death.”

José Daniel Ferrer, a leader of the Cuban Patriotic Union opposition group, was arrested as he was heading to a demonstration and was later charged with public disorder for “deciding to join” a street protest.

Why do many world democracies vote for a decrepit dictatorship like Cuba for a Council seat? Very simple: Cuba invests a lot in public diplomacy and trades votes on various U.N. commissions.

The Cuban regime mobilizes its allies in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East to help other countries win seats on U.N. economic or trade commissions in exchange for these countries’ votes for Cuba’s membership at the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The Biden administration, which decided to return to the Council after the Trump administration withdrew from it, is expected to call on other countries to vote against Cuba.

“The United States opposes Cuba’s candidacy for the Council,” a U.S. State Department official e-mailed me. “Cuba continues to have one of the worst human-rights records in the hemisphere.”

Biden supporters note that, since the United States returned to the Council in late 2021, it has made a positive difference.

Late last year, in part thanks to U.S. lobbying, Venezuela lost its bid to be elected to the Council. Chile was elected with 144 votes and Costa Rica with 134, while Venezuela got only 88 of the 97 votes it needed to get a seat.

This year, we will see whether Venezuela’s loss was a one-time win for democracymor a sign that the Council is beginning to meet its original mission.

If Cuba is re-elected, the U.N. Council will continue to be a joke.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show on Sundays at 9 pm E.T. on CNN en Español. Blog: www.andresoppenheimer.com