Political and civil rights abuses committed by the Cuban government have continued unabated in the three years since Raul Castro took over from his older brother, Fidel. U.S. travel and trade bans, therefore, must be lifted.
Although these conclusions -- both included in the recent Human Rights Watch report, “New Castro, Same Cuba” -- may seem incongruous, they are not. Rather, they illustrate that the economic pressure that failed to yield either regime change or human rights reforms over more than four decades of Fidel Castro’s rule is just as ineffective today as it has always been. Instead of continuing a failed policy, the Obama administration should craft a new one of incentives for Cuba to improve its human rights record.
Those who had hoped that the younger Castro’s ascent would bring an era of political liberalization have been disappointed. According to Human Rights Watch, only the government’s tactics have changed. Raul Castro continues to stifle political dissent, most notably using an Orwellian provision of the criminal code that allows for arrest and sentencing before a crime has been committed. The government has imprisoned more than 40 people under this “dangerousness” offense for violating Cuban socialist norms, such as failing to join party organizations or attend pro-government rallies. Scores of other prisoners are being held for writing articles critical of the government or pushing for labor rights, including 53 people still held from a 2003 crackdown by Fidel Castro, the report says. Activists “are subjected to systematic due process violations, including abusive interrogations, the denial of legal counsel and sham trials.” Even Cuba’s most famous blogger, Yoani Sanchez, was beaten and prohibited from leaving the country to accept an award last month.
The Obama administration, to its credit, has relaxed travel restrictions on Cuban Americans, lifted limits on remittances and resumed limited negotiations on issues such as migration, but the engagement stopped there. Meanwhile, the Spanish government, which takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union in January, has indicated that it is seeking gestures from the Cuban government that would allow for normalization of relations with the EU.
It would be best if the U.S. and the EU forged a common policy pushing for the release of political prisoners and other human rights improvements, while making clear they do not seek re- gime change. Frequent contact between peoples and the free flow of goods and ideas are the best means to create pressure for change. As Human Rights Watch notes, the U.S. embargo has too long served the Castros as a pretext for cracking down on dissidents. Try something else.