Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Does the U.S. Embargo on Cuba Protect Human Rights?

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Frankly, the Cuban embargo has always been a difficult issue for me. Publicly I’ve avoided the issue largely because I’ve always believed it’s been a huge distraction for what is the main issue concerning Cuba: the almost incomprehensible level of repression and control that the Castro regime exercises over its population. So, in my often-failed objective to avoid discussing the embargo, I want now (in the heightened debate over President Barack Obama’s Cuba policy) to try to weigh the pros and cons as I view them in my own humble opinion. Fortunately, as a very thoughtful and balanced recent staff trip report by the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations demonstrates, a number of groups are trying to bridge the divide that has traditionally hamstrung policy toward Cuba.

Cuba defies modern explanation, especially in this hemisphere: constitutional and legal restrictions on the rights of citizens to congregate, denial of citizens to express political views, sham elections in which only one party is allowed to compete, the regular detention and harassment of human rights activists by the police or state-controlled neighborhood committees, and jailing of dissidents through kangaroo courts on trumped up charges of treason and violence. In a 1997 report, Human Rights Watch described it best in the title of its study, Cuba’s Repressive Machinery.

This level of institutional, legal and political control is incomprehensible for many in a hemisphere that experienced (in all but country—Cuba) the third wave of democracy starting in 1978. In part, I think, Cuba’s hemispheric anomaly explains the lame and sometimes pathetic response of many regional human rights groups to the abuses on the island. Many quite simply can’t fathom that level of control, having grown up under more bloody but less subtle forms of authoritarianism.
But this is, of course, giving many of them the benefit of the doubt. There is also, in part, the ideological affinity many have to the regime and the figure of Fidel Castro. And along with it comes a facile, knee-jerk reaction to U.S. policy to the region—preferring to focus on U.S. mistakes or abuses and not the ones that the Cuban regime commits on its own people by choice. (The one I always love is that somehow Castro’s jailing of dissidents is the fault of the U.S. administration to recognize the government. Let’s face it, repression in Cuba, as in any autocratic state, is aimed at only one goal: self preservation.)

For this reason, when we talk about Cuba it always comes back to the embargo. For some, the U.S. embargo is a Cold War anachronism that hasn’t worked in its intended goal: regime change. For others it is essential in starving the regime of the resources it needs to repress its own citizens. For these folks, though, maintaining the U.S. embargo has seemed to become a more important goal than human rights themselves. (There’s also the conspiracy theory argument that what proponents of the embargo want is to so cripple the country that they can swoop in when there is change to retake the island. Though honestly, of the people I know who support the embargo, this is not the case. They may exist. But the ones I know who support the embargo do so for honorable reasons—though many may disagree.)

The first issue: what effect does the U.S. embargo have on human rights? It’s clearly done little to improve them. Human rights today are certainly no better than when the initial embargo was slapped on the regime by the administration of President Kennedy in 1962. In fact they’ve gotten worse.

But does an immediate change in policy bring real change? Unlikely. And this is something that quite frankly rankles me. The argument used by those who want to lift the embargo that the policy has failed for 50 years so let’s try something new doesn’t hold any logic—or at least a very lazy one. There are a number of things that don’t mean that the inverse automatically makes them true. Sure, maybe the embargo’s failed on its primary goal; but reversing it doesn’t necessarily mean success.

The second issue
: should U.S. investors do business with a corrupt, repressive regime? Here the argument that the U.S. allows commerce with other repressive nations is both right and wrong. To be sure there is no moral consistency in U.S. policy regarding trade toward countries: we not only trade, we also have fluid and constructive relations with countries such as China and Vietnam. But the argument leveled by embargo proponents is equally true: there is a space for private investment in those countries that doesn’t exist in Cuba. The Cuban state is the primary stakeholder in any outside investment and retains strict controls over resolution of investment conflicts and selection and payments to employees.

And here, as a big “D” Democrat, I must admit a certain moral quandary. Whatever I may think of the embargo’s morality or efficacy, there are problems for any labor-loving Democrat about allowing open U.S. investment under a regime that contracts all labor (selecting them on political loyalty) and requires all salary payments to be made directly to the state in which the workers only see reportedly 11% of the salary actually paid. These conditions (along with state restrictions on organization of non-state sanctioned labor unions) clearly violate international labor accords, to which Cuba is a signatory, and core Democratic values regarding labor rights. (Ironically many of the same groups that are advocating for an embargo-free Cuba as prescription for democracy are the same ones who are saying that free trade with a genuinely, popularly elected government, Colombia, will harm democracy.)

Third issue: lifting the embargo will improve relations with our neighbors. The argument here is that we may get more countries to stand by our side on human rights issues if we abandon our strident efforts to isolate and economically freeze out the island. This may be true. It would certainly cut the legs out from under the Castro regime’s efforts to present itself as a victim. But does it really give the U.S. more leverage on human rights? I’m not sure that any more countries would be willing to stand side-by-side with the U.S. on issues of detentions and abuses in Cuba without an embargo. For many, the issue is more one of not wanting to offend the Castros or appear to be undermining the romantic, iconic ideal of the revolution. Changing U.S. policy won’t alter that. It may improve the U.S.’s popularity in the region, but do we really think a more moral, united front vis á vis the Castros’ human rights policies will result because we drop the embargo? Honestly, I’m less sure it would improve our ability to rally those same countries to stand up for human rights activists and change inside Cuba.

But it’s the other issues (what I call the dissolve distrust, overwhelm the regime and outmaneuver other contenders to the throne arguments) that have more credibility.

Let’s take the first: “dissolve distrust.” No one can deny that there is a huge reserve of distrust on the island concerning U.S. intentions going all the way back to the Platt Amendment, extending through the sad history of invasion and assassination attempts after the revolution, the failure of the U.S. to prosecute individuals accused of committing acts of terrorism against Cuban citizens, and the public, in-your-face attitude toward regime change. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the Cuban regime’s impressive propaganda machine that reminds Cuban citizens daily of this history. None of this sad history justifies the human rights abuses committed by the regime.

But it is precisely this history that argues for the need for real people-to-people contacts that can show that, to put it bluntly, we’re not all monsters and that what awaits Cuban citizens—even government officials—across the Florida straits is not a group of frothy-mouthed capitalists intent of turning Cuba back into a U.S. protectorate. We’re humane and the U.S. government has no sinister designs of Cuba. We need to show to that to Cubans.

Why we’ve denied these contacts is a mystery to me. They will speak to the younger generation of apparatchiks in the regime who are chafing under Castro but want an exit. These are not fire-breathing revolutionaries bent on subverting Washington, DC, but self-interested technocrats—many of them very capable—who recognize the human rights transgressions of their own government. Do they want to protect and defend their status? Sure. For that reason we need to show it’s not a zero-sum game.

Then there’s the “overwhelm them argument.” Yes, I know that tourism is limited, and tourists rarely stray beyond the confines of their five-star hotels. But the economic impact of fueling a shadow economy in hotels, taxis, restaurants, consumer stores, and bars will tax a regime that is already stretched to the limits. The creation of an independent entrepreneurial class (and let’s face it, Cuban entrepreneur is almost redundant) will build capacity in Cuba and create a separation between citizen and state that no amount of U.S. government assistance to island-bound civil society under current restrictions can do. In this case and the one above, we did the same with citizens from the Soviet Union for the same intended effect. Are we really more scared of a country of 11 million people with no nuclear capacity than we were of the Soviet Union?

Last is “outflanking other leaders in the hemisphere.” It’s no secret that President of Venezuela , Hugo Chávez—a man who’s made clear his intentions to displace U.S. influence in the region—is angling to inherit the mantle of Fidel. With the Venezuelan government’s steady supply of 94,000 barrels of oil per day to Cuba, its offer of building a refinery in Cienfuegos and other benefits to the Cuban government, Mr. Chávez intends to establish his Bolivarian empire as the gravitational center of the ideological universe that Fidel Castro created.

But the truth is many Cubans don’t feel comfortable with this, nor with President Chávez himself. Just witness the stops Raúl Castro made on his recent world tour: Russia and Algeria. These weren’t because the beaches there are nicer than Varadero; these are all oil producers and potential suppliers.

An embargo on economic relations and political contacts, in effect, leaves the playing field open not just for President Chávez but for Vladimir Putin or anyone one else who wants to counter the U.S. in the region.

In short, let’s suit up and get in the game—on our terms.

All this is not to say that we should jettison human rights concerns in our dealings with Cuba. On this I differ sharply with many Latin Americanists. Human rights should be on the agenda, along with issues of migration, maritime borders, environment, humanitarian/disaster assistance, and the creation of private-sector representative offices. But none of those should be conditioned on a rigid (and deeply antagonizing) concept of regime change. We can engage on discrete issues. And we can do it without a wholesale, willy-nilly lifting of the embargo.

But the basic premise of the embargo—both in its efforts at complete isolation, starving the regime, threatening government officials, and stopping at nothing more than regime change—is counterproductive. Not just for human rights, but U.S. influence in the region generally. Please, though, don’t confuse this for a lack of will or horror for the human rights abuses in Cuba. They are appalling. In fact, they stand in stark contradiction with modern concepts of popular sovereignty. Surely, we can combine a discussion with Cuba in that light with a more nuanced understanding of how policy challenges can begin to shift the balance in the favor of U.S.’s humane and national interests.


Christopher Sabatini is the former editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and former senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. His Twitter account is @ChrisSabatini

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