Debate continues over best way to foster greater human rights.
Recent reports that President Donald J. Trump is considering reversing some of the Cuba policy initiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama, have renewed debate over whether greater engagement with Havana will help advance human rights in Cuba.
After months of secret negotiations brokered by Pope Francis, Washington and Havana announced in December 2014 that they would restore full diplomatic relations. In subsequent months, the diplomatic mission each country had operated was reinstated as an embassy, and the Obama administration eased some travel and trade restrictions on Cuba. It also removed the island nation from an official list of terrorism sponsors.
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump said he would reverse Obama’s reforms if Havana fails to release political prisoners and grant Cuban citizens more political and religious liberties. In recent months, he has reportedly been speaking with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and others about what steps he might take.
“I am confident the president will keep his commitment on Cuba policy by making changes that are targeted and strategic and which advance the Cuban people’s aspirations for economic and political liberty,” Rubio told the New York Times.
The Times also pointed out that Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican who represents parts of South Florida in the House of Representatives, was negotiating with the White House when Trump wanted to see the House pass a bill that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Diaz-Balart reportedly asked for assurances from Trump that he would hold to the hard line on Cuba he laid out in his campaign.
Rubio and Diaz-Balart would like to see the administration block transactions between American companies and firms that have ties to the Cuban military, the Times reported.
Mr. Trump, according to people close to the discussions, is also considering tightening restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba that were eased last year on the eve of Mr. Obama’s historic trip to Havana. The new policy allows Americans who are making educational or cultural trips to Cuba to initiate their own travel there without special permission from the United States government and without a licensed tour company.
In a statement for Cuban Independence Day last month, Diaz-Balart said, “Without fair, multiparty elections, the rights to association, free expression, and religious belief, an independent media, and the liberation of all political prisoners, the Cuban people are not free.”
On the second anniversary of the announcement of a new policy, which Diaz-Balart terms “appeasement” of the Castro regime, the congressman stated that since Obama’s policy began, “oppression on the island has increased significantly.”
“Political arrests have reached a staggering 9,484 this year,” he said. “I look forward to working with the incoming President to reverse this failed approach and pursue a policy that furthers American interests and respects the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people.”
Trump can undo some or all of the executive actions of his predecessor. The trade embargo, which was instituted by Congress in the 1960s, could remain in effect, but that would be up to Congress.
“The Obama Cuba policy in effect abandoned the human rights activists and pro-democracy activists in Cuba, so Trump could turn our focus back to them,” said Alberto de la Cruz, editor of Babalu, a blog that documents human rights abuses in Cuba. “The cultural exchange travel is basically a ruse. There is no cultural exchange. You’re going there and being led by the nose by government-owned entities that take you to government-owned places, and you’re not really seeing Cuba from a cultural [perspective], you’re seeing what the government wants you to see. That pumps money into their coffers. It’s always good to defund the machine of repression.”
But many experts feel that reversing the new policy would cut out the motivation Cuba needs to embrace democratic reforms. “Any steps back toward the demonstrably-failed policy of isolation would be a grave and unforced error,” argues Bonnie Kristian, a fellow at Defense Priorities, writing at Real Clear World. “It will make advances toward Cuban freedom more difficult and re-entrench the grim authority of the regime in Havana.”
According to Sarah Stephens, founding executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas and Director of the Atlantic Fellows Platform for Innovation and Narrative, engagement has been a positive experience for both countries. Stephens referred to a new study published by an organization called Engage Cuba, which warned that rolling back the current U.S. policy on Cuba could cost U.S. businesses and taxpayers $6.6 billion over the course of Trump’s first term and affect 12,295 jobs across the country.
“The study shows that in 50 years of imposing sanctions on Cuba, US policy never created the benefits of jobs, family reunification, and diplomacy that we have seen under 30 months of engagement with Cuba,” Stephens said. “This study shows how invested the US has become in normal relations with Cuba economically and raises the question why would we pay the price of rolling it back diplomatically?”
De la Cruz considers those arguments to be flawed.
“The truth of the matter is the rest of the world has been engaging with the Cuban government—Canada for three decades. What has Canada convinced the Cuban government to do as far as reforms and human rights? When you deal with the Cuban government, that’s a deal killer. If you’re going to talk human rights or reform or democracy, that ends the discussion. Meeting’s over. They will not accept any deal that has any preconditions on human rights.”
He added that most of the money the study predicts U.S. businesses would lose is in the travel sector. “And that’s assuming that every single person who will no longer fly to Cuba will not fly anywhere else,” he said. “The rest of it is agricultural. The embargo didn’t stop us from selling food—they just have to pay cash. … What Cuba wants is not the ability to buy from our market; they want credit. They want the ability to finance it. They will never pay because that’s what they do. They’re billions in the hole to everybody else.”
The study said that religious leaders and humanitarian organizations “also have greater freedom to engage with the Cuban people and make a positive impact on the island. The U.S. and Cuban governments have also pledged to cooperate on their shared interests in environmental protection, disaster risk reduction, and lowering emissions.”
Asked about concrete examples of the differences the Obama policy may have made, an Argentinian priest who has been working in Cuba for the past four years said he has seen no change in the government.
“Not at all,” said Father Carlos Peteira, a missionary in Sancti Spíritus, a town in central Cuba.
He does see change for ordinary people, but he attributes those changes to other forces, such as greater communication with Cubans abroad. More Cubans are traveling; more homes are being improved, and more people, “even the humblest ones,” have greater access to technology, mostly through cell phones, he said. More private enterprise is allowed, particularly in the areas of sale of food, transport of cargo and passengers, and the renting of houses, the priest added. In fact, some people engaging in such work are doing better than some professionals. “Many of the doctors leave their profession to raise pigs, with significant profits,” he said.
“In what concerns our pastoral work, we have had an acceptable freedom,” Father Pateira said. “At least all manifestations of faith, especially processions, have been able to be carried out without difficulty and on journeys of greater distances, unthinkable before the 1990s. There is no hint that a publication can be undertaken that goes beyond the scope of what is strictly religious, let alone thinking about the possibility of recovering private educational centers, such as schools or universities run by the Church.”
Although the news has focused on Trump considering a rollback of Obama policy, the president’s proposed State Department budget does give some pro-Democracy Cuban-Americans pause. The budget, which the administration sent to Congress in May, cuts out USAID funds for Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador—funds that have traditionally helped reformists inside those countries.
“This budget is very troubling when it comes to democracy funding for countries in Latin America,” South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told the Miami Herald. “It is imperative for the United States to continue to support civil society and human rights activists in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.”
Assistance to Cuba is governed by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act and the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, the Herald explained. Among other things, those laws authorize donations of food to non-governmental organizations or individuals as well as other assistance to individuals and organizations to promote nonviolent, democratic change in Cuba:
Cuba programs that USAID advertised last year included $6 million in grants offered over a three-year period to organizations to “provide humanitarian assistance to political prisoners and their families, and politically marginalized individuals and groups in Cuba,” and a $754,000 program to bring Cuban young people to the United States for internships.
Among USAID programs for Cuba that have caught flak in recent years were a failed effort to co-opt the Cuban hip-hop scene to spark a youth movement that would speak out against the government, a program to create a secret Twitter-like network called ZunZuneo and an event billed as an HIV prevention workshop that brought young Latin Americans posing as tourists to Cuba with a mission of scouting for “potential social-change actors.” The Associated Press, which first disclosed these projects in 2014, said the goal of ZunZuneo was first to create a program for Cubans to speak freely among themselves and then funnel political content that could create political unrest. USAID said ZunZuneo’s goal was to connect Cubans so eventually they could engage on topics of their choice and that only tech news, sports scores and trivia were sent out on ZunZuneo. But a report by the Office of Inspector General found some early messages, which mocked Cuban leaders, contained political satire. ZunZuneo was starting up just as USAID subcontractor Alan Gross was arrested in Havana in December 2009 for distributing satellite equipment in Cuba to link with the internet. Gross was sentenced to 15 years by a Cuban court that ruled his intent was to undermine the government, but he was released after serving five years Dec. 17, 2014. It was the day the United States and Cuba announced a rapprochement after more than a half century of hostilities.