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Human Rights Study Project Students Interview Dissident Leaders, Study Free Speech in Cuba

HRSP on their way to Havana. From left, Michael Royal '04, UVA graduate students Sarah Cox and Charlie Wright, Katy Caouette '04, Claudia Gee '04, graduate student David Vassar, Lance Stern '04, and Azish Filabi '04.
Cuban with antenna
A Cuban holds an antenna used to thwart the government's blocking of Radio Marti

Although he and other members of the Human Rights Study Project were visiting a country under rule of a dictator, David Vassar didn’t really feel in danger until their Cuban taxi driver balked at taking them home after learning they were researching free speech issues.With a little extra money, they got home, dropped off “inconspicuously” to protect their driver. After that, he didn’t feel safe anymore, Vassar told the audience at HRSP’s presentation on free speech and Cuba April 8 at the Law School.

Several Law and University graduate students met with Cuban dissidents and free speech advocates during their spring break, just weeks prior to “what is being called the biggest crackdown on dissidents in over a decade,” according to rising third-year Law student Michael Royal.While there, HRSP members interviewed and met independent librarians, journalists, health care workers, and others, many of whom were dissidents advocating for democracy and freedom of expression.

The timing of the trip was noteworthy. The students may have been among the last to have had the chance to interview some of Cuba’s most well-known activists before the historic events of mid-March. Two weeks after they left the island, President Fidel Castro began a massive, nation-wide crackdown on the dissident movement in Cuba, the largest crackdown in over a decade, according to the U.S. State Department. Seventy-five dissident leaders were sent to jail, some for up to 27 years. The students in HRSP had the chance to hear the thoughts and stories of six of them.

The group worked with Ricardo Zuniga, a State Department Human Rights Officer at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana who helped set up a meeting with several dissidents and provided contact information for others. “This group of UVA law [and graduate] students undertook among the most comprehensive, objective surveys of human right conditions in Cuba of any visitors I’ve known in my three years dealing with Cuba,” Zuniga said in written comments, noting that the students came prepared with contact information about many of the people he recommended they meet. “It is very unusual for a U.S. group to organize a visit outside of the direct control of Cuban government handlers, and still more unusual for a group to meet with democracy advocates.”

HRSP, a new student organization, “is an opportunity for law students to work as a team to do some research and travel”— finding information one wouldn’t have access to in Charlottesville, Royal said. Royal testified about the group’s experiences during a hearing held by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on International Relations on Wednesday, April 16 (see story opposite).

Zuniga praised the students’ efforts and preparedness, as well as the goals of the program. “This is an excellent program for the students to pursue, especially if they follow up with the recent legal action taken against many of the people they met with or heard about during their trip,” he said. “Their work was first-rate. It was as professional as the work undertaken by non-governmental organizations that specialize in legal/human rights issues, and in some ways more rigorous.”

Student Testifies Before Congress on Human Rights Abuses in Cuba

HUMAN RIGHTS STUDY PROJECT (HRSP) DIRECTOR Michael Royal testified before Congress April 16 in a hearing held by the House Committee on International Relations concerning the Cuban government’s recent crackdown on dissidents.

Royal and other members of HRSP had traveled to Cuba over spring break to study free speech issues and interview dissidents. They presented their findings at the Law School earlier this month and soon after a non-governmental organization director the group worked with recommended to the Committee that Royal testify about the group’s experiences and research.

“I wanted to try to provide a sense of what some of these people’s lives are like — what they’re going through — to give a sense of the struggle that’s going on in Cuba to gain freedom of expression,” Royal said. “This is certainly a time for outrage against Castro and his government.” He focused his remarks to the Committee on his specific area of study, the independent library movement in Cuba, which faced considerable hostility from the Cuban government during the recent crackdown.

In the same hearing, Committee members heard from several U.S. Department of State Assistant Secretaries, Cuban dissident leaders and NGO representatives. Royal added that many of the Committee members may have already decided that keeping a tight U.S. embargo and restrictions on Cuba is the solution, but “I don’t necessarily follow that line of thinking.” At the conclusion of his testimony he struck a cautionary note about relying on the traditional approach to dealing with Castro.

Royal called his day in Congress a “terrific experience.”

“I’m very happy that our organization had a platform to raise awareness about the human rights violations going on in the world,” he said. “I went to Washington, but it was an enormous team effort this semester that made an opportunity like this even conceivable.”

Royal’s testimony is posted on the HRSP website, and can be watched on C-SPAN’s website. Go to, scroll to the bottom and click on Next Page until you get to “House Hearing on Human Rights Practices, 4/16/2003.” Royal’s testimony is two hours into the recording.


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