WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
15 Mar 2016 | Commentary

Can U.S. Engagement with Cuba Encourage Improvements in Human Rights and Political Freedoms?

President Obama’s trip to Cuba emphasizes the determination on the part of the United States and Cuba to enter a new era. The decision to normalize relations with Cuba, to increase trade, travel and cultural exchange, and to urge Congress to end the U.S. embargo is clearly in our national interest. It also sets the United States on a more constructive approach to human rights and political freedoms in Cuba, after more than five decades of a failed policy.

Cuba has been undergoing a process of change in recent years on the economic front. These changes are significant, and affect the daily lives of people on the island. The question remains – can these internal changes and the shift in U.S.-Cuba relations help encourage greater political space on the island?

Economic and Political Opening

The need for sustainable economic growth has led Cuban leaders to pursue a series of reforms in recent years. Cubans can now travel abroad, buy and sell homes and cars, start businesses in more than 200 economic activities, receive remittances from families in the U.S., and attend business classes offered by non-governmental institutions.

Previously, the Cuban government was the only source of employment on the island. Now the country is moving toward a mixed economy. As a result of ongoing economic reforms, well over a million Cubans now receive some portion of their income from private economic activity rather than from the state. As more Cubans leave the state payrolls and engage in private economic activity, their relationship with their government is being fundamentally altered.

Alongside these economic reforms have been modest political openings, and there is increasing evidence that the political climate has gradually become more tolerant. Cubans now travel abroad freely, access to the internet is steadily growing, and debates about the pace and scope of reform have become more public. While human rights concerns persist, Cuba has freed most political prisoners in recent years. The government released 53 imprisoned dissidents as a result of negotiations with the United States in early 2015, and in October authorities freed graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado, who was identified in press accounts as the last “prisoner of conscience” in Cuba.

Serious Human Rights Concerns Persist: What is the proper and most effective U.S. role?

These are modest political steps, and there is no question that Cuba ought to do more to permit its citizens’ full freedom of expression and association. Cuban security forces harass individuals and groups organized for political reasons. They attempt to disrupt political meetings through arbitrary short-term detentions. Arbitrary arrests and other tactics are designed to intimidate Cubans from political activities unsanctioned by the government. There is only one legal political party, and the media are owned by the state, with no editorial independence. This limits citizen access to information, and restricts freedom of expression and political opinion. While Cubans are increasingly comfortable expressing political opinions in conversations, public manifestations of dissent are uncommon, and those who participate risk potential repression.

The United States should continue to express concern over, and urge improvements in all these areas.  At the same time it is essential to recognize that the United States’ approach throughout the Cold War and beyond did not result in expanding political freedoms or civil society discourse in Cuba.

Respect for political and civil liberties is an important U.S. value. Even as we strive to realize this at home, it should be reflected in our foreign policy toward Cuba and the rest of the world. But it has never been the role of the United States to dictate the future of the Cuban people. Lecturing Cuba, telling Cubans what kind of political and economic model they should adopt, and seeking to isolate the country have proven to be counterproductive.

What we need now is an approach that acknowledges a fundamental tenet of self-determination: the Cuban people will be the main protagonists in defining their country’s future, and how it will evolve. They are the ones who will drive societal change in their country.

U.S. Policy and the Pace of Change in Cuba

The issue is not whether more reform in Cuba is needed, but how it will come about. U.S. policy towards Cuba can either contribute constructively to that process, or undermine the important changes underway on the island. In fact, the changes Cuba has seen over the last eight years  –  economic reform, the beginnings of a mixed economy, greater exchange of information and increasing reintegration into the global economy – have the potential to generate  greater space for Cubans to develop a more open society.

The recent economic reforms have done more than simply legalize commerce. They have altered the incentives across society and opened a wide-ranging debate regarding a new social compact in Cuba. Non-state, civil society actors are increasingly seeking to advance their local interests. These actors are carving out space for dialogue on issues like homeowners’ interests, local tax rates, private employment pay, working conditions, and regulating private commercial activity.

The expansion of access to information through the internet will be critical to the opening of space for political debate both online, and in other media. The expansion of a more pluralistic culture, and of a diverse civil society, will be essential to this process as well.

For this reason, the most important immediate contribution U.S. policymakers can make to encourage political openness in Cuba is to end the embargo and normalize relations. The normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba will remove hostility toward the United States as an excuse for restricting political dissent. It will also reduce political tensions and create the possibility of a greater opening of political space.

Supporting a Diverse Cuban Civil Society

The goal of U.S. policy should be to encourage the expansion of Cuban civil society in its diverse expressions, not to support particular political factions or dissident groups. With normalization, U.S. policy toward Cuba can make a positive contribution provided that it takes a careful and sophisticated approach.

The United States should recognize that a civil society does in fact exist in Cuba today. It is broad and diverse; it includes people in the churches, social organizations, academics, artists, entrepreneurs, and members of cooperatives. While Cuban civil society doesn’t always take the same organizational forms as civil society in the United States or in other parts of Latin America, the reality is that there are broad currents of citizens, in organizations, networks and associations, who pursue cultural, social, artistic, and other endeavors. They have a wide range of political opinions – some oppose the government, some support it, and some are even indifferent to it.

A Path Forward

We don’t know how the process of long-term change in Cuba is going to work, and the United States can’t and shouldn’t dictate the terms or the outcome. We can, however, contribute by increased exchange and dialogue between our two societies that will stimulate political debate both in Cuba and in the United States between government officials, academics, church people, artists, scientists, and others.

We should engage with civil society across the board, holding meetings and events to which we invite critics and the range of traditional dissidents as well as Party loyalists, Party reformers, and non-affiliated individuals who want change or greater openness.  We can do so by continuing to assert the values of free expression and association that we cherish.

Some argue that by doing all this we would be making concessions to Cuba, tolerating or ignoring abuses and shortcomings while we seek commercial advantages. Nothing can be further from the truth.

Changing our approach to Cuba is clearly in the U.S. interest — the current policy has failed to work, isolated us from others in the hemisphere, denied our citizens the right to travel, and cost us job and trade opportunities without any commensurate gains. We should move toward a new policy because it is simply the right thing for us, whether Cuba changes or not.

But we should recognize too that a new, engaged, and respectful policy toward Cuba is far more likely than the old policy of isolation and polarization to advance the internal processes of reform and change already underway.