Of Che Guevara and "Constitutional Rights"
During the holidays, I broke down and actually read Naomi Wolf's new book , The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. Its only redeeming quality was that it was a fairly quick read. Still, that's five hours of my life I won't be getting back.
I'll be posting an excruciatingly long winded review of the book very soon. In the meantime, there is one particular aspect I wanted to address. In her essay, Wolf spends a lot of time talking about the U.S. detention facility for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She compares the prison to a Nazi concentration camp, which exists for the sole purpose of producing "false confessions by brown people with Muslim names".(p.71)
Wolf's discussion of Guantanamo is little more than a regurgitation of the talking points of a lawyer named Michael Ratner. She cites him by name and quotes him extensively in the text. Ratner is president of an innocuous sounding organization named the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). According to their web site, the CCR is "dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Ratner and the CCR have spearheaded the legal campaign in support of the Guantanamo detainees. In order to assess the credibility of Wolf's claims about Guantanamo, a look at Ratner and the CCR is warranted.
Unfortunately, Ratner's legal career reveals that he is anything but a disinterested advocate for human rights. In particular, there have been two constants to Ratner's work: one, he is reliably opposed to whatever policy the US government is pursuing; two, he is almost always on the same side as the regime of Fidel Castro.
In 1996 Ratner represented a pro-Castro crank who vandalized New York street signs dedicated to anti-Castro pilots shot down and killed by the Cuban Air Force. During the Elian Gonzalez saga in 2000, Ratner forcefully demanded the boy's return to Cuba, going so far as to travel to Havana and meet with high-ranking Castro regime officials. The best indicator of Ratner's real attitude towards "constitutional rights", however, lies in his choice of hero: one Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
"Bearded, bald, and fond of quoting Che Guevara". This is how author Brandt Goldstein describes Ratner in his 2005 book Storming the Court. In 1997, Ratner co-edited a book containing declassified U.S. government documents about Guevara. He and his colleague, Michael Steven Smith, announced the book's official release at a press conference in Havana.
Back in June 2005, Rocco DiPippo documented Ratner's long record of using the law as a tool in support of his radical leftist ideology. According to DiPippo, Ratner's introduction to the Che volume includes the following passage:
…for many of us seeking to change our society, Cuba was a desirable model. And it was Ché Guevara, more than any other figure, who embodied both that revolution and solidarity with peoples fighting to be free from U.S. hegemony…Ché has remained my hero ever since.
(Emphasis in provided quote-DD)
A look at the man Ratner calls his "hero" reveals a great deal about the sincerity of his commitment to human rights and civil liberties. Of particular interest is Guevara's performance as head of La Cabana prison in Havana in the early months of the Castro regime. While there, he was responsible for the execution of hundreds of prisoners, who were condemned without the benefit of habeas corpus or due process. Alvaro Vargas Llosa's aptly titled July 2005 essay "The Killing Machine" quotes a chaplain at La Cabana discussing his experiences with Guevara:
there were about eight hundred prisoners in a space fit for no more than three hundred: former Batista military and police personnel, some journalists, a few businessmen and merchants. The revolutionary tribunal was made of militiamen. Che Guevara presided over the appellate court. He never overturned a sentence. I would visit those on death row at the galera de la muerte. A rumor went around that I hypnotized prisoners because many remained calm, so Che ordered that I be present at the executions. After I left in May, they executed many more, but I personally witnessed fifty-five executions. There was an American, Herman Marks, apparently a former convict. We called him “the butcher” because he enjoyed giving the order to shoot. I pleaded many times with Che on behalf of prisoners. I remember especially the case of Ariel Lima, a young boy. Che did not budge. Nor did Fidel, whom I visited. I became so traumatized that at the end of May 1959 I was ordered to leave the parish of Casa Blanca, where La Cabaña was located and where I had held Mass for three years. I went to Mexico for treatment. The day I left, Che told me we had both tried to bring one another to each other’s side and had failed. His last words were: “When we take our masks off, we will be enemies.”
A lawyer named Jose Vilasuso who was involved in the La Cabana tribunals has also testified to the blatantly rigged nature of the process and the key role played by Guevara:
At the beginning, the Tribunals were composed of civilian and military lawyers, under the direction of Captain Mike Duque de Estrada and Lieutenants Sotolongo and Rivero (who later went crazy), and the prosecutors Tony Suarez de la Fuente (Pelayito) also known as “Pool o’blood” (Charco de Sangre) among others. Then, most of us quit given the excesses. Later, others without any legal training occupied our positions.
There were relatives of victims of the previous regime who were put in charge of judging the accused.
The first case on which I worked was that of Ariel Lima, a former revolutionary who had gone to the government side. His fate was sealed. He was dressed in prison uniform. I saw him handcuffed with his teeth chattering. According to the Law of the Guerrillas the facts were judged without any consideration to general juridical principles. The right of Habeas Corpus had been suspended.
The statements of the investigating officer constituted irrefutable proof of wrongdoing. The defense lawyer simply admitted the accusations and requested the generosity of the government in order to reduce the sentence. In those days, Guevara was visible in his black beret, cigar in mouth. Cantinflas-like face and bandaged arm in sling. He was extremely thin and his slow and cold tone demonstrated his “posse” of “gray eminence” of the Revolution and total adherence to Marxist theory. Many people congregated in his office and engaged in lively discussions about the revolutionary process. However, his conversation used to be full of irony, he never showed any alteration in temperament or paid any attention to different opinions He reprimanded in private more than one colleague; in public, he chastised us all: “Don’t delay these trials. This is a revolution, the proofs are secondary. We have to proceed by conviction. They are a gang of criminals and murderers. Besides, remember that there is an Appeals Tribunals”
This Appeals Tribunal never decided in favor of the appeal. It simply confirmed the sentences. It was presided by Commander Ernesto Guevara Serna.
Michael Ratner demands that the suspected jihadists held at Guantanamo be granted habeas corpus, yet he supports a regime that in 1992 eliminated the same right from the Cuban constitution after many years of ignoring it altogether. Ratner denounces the military commissions at Guantanamo as unfair, yet he embraces as a hero a man who oversaw the execution of hundreds after convicting them in kangaroo courts. Ratner heads an organization that claims to support "advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed" in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet he collaborates with a regime that burns this document and imprisons those who distribute it.
For Michael Ratner, upholding human rights means filing lawsuit after lawsuit against the U.S. government and allies such as Israel, while not lifting a finger on behalf of the victims of radical and Marxist regimes like Cuba's. He is many things, but a champion of "constitutional rights" is not one of them.