Engaging Cuba on Human Rights

Engaging Cuba on Human RightsThe regime should be asked to release political prisoners in exchange for normal relations.By JORGE G. CASTAÑEDA The Wall Street JournalNovember 19th 2009Normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba was widely seen as exactly the kind of high-value, low-hanging fruit that would be ideal for a president elected under the banner of "change." But a scathing new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, "New Castro, Same Cuba," will make lifting sanctions against the Castro regime—on travel, remittances, trade—more difficult for President Obama. Sadly, the human-rights situation on the island remains dismal, despite new leadership. According to HRW, the Raúl Castro government has harassed and imprisoned dissidents using an Orwellian provision of the Cuban Criminal Code that punishes "dangerousness." Authorities can lock up individuals on the suspicion that they may commit a crime in the future, or for engaging in behavior that is "antisocial" or contrary to "socialist morality." Among the activities the government has deemed "dangerous" are: handing out copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, failing to attend pro-government rallies, or simply being unemployed. In its report, based on more than 60 interviews carried out in Cuba without official permission or by phone from abroad, HRW documented more than 40 cases of dissidents who have been sentenced for "dangerousness."Cuban law is replete with laws like the "dangerousness" provision that may be used to punish anyone seen as critical of the government. Human-rights defenders, journalists, political activists and others charged with breaking such laws find themselves at the mercy of a system that violates virtually every due process right. Political detainees are denied access to legal counsel and family visits. They are subjected to abusive interrogations, and they may be detained for months or even years without being charged. Trials are pure theater, mostly conducted behind closed doors and finished in minutes.Once in prison, abuse is commonplace. On Dec. 10, 2008—Human Rights Day—a political prisoner tried to read aloud to fellow prisoners from a book his wife had brought him called "Your Rights." In response, a guard came into his cell and told him to eat the book. When the prisoner refused, he was beaten and later sentenced to six more years in prison for "disrespecting authority." Dissidents are subjected to public "acts of repudiation," in which crowds gather outside of their homes, throwing stones, shouting threats, and sometimes physically assaulting them. Those labeled "counterrevolutionaries" are fired from their jobs, monitored, threatened and prevented from traveling. The beating of dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez by two men she says were Cuban agents in civilian clothes in Havana just two weeks ago is further proof of this regrettable state of affairs. Without outside pressure, the human-rights situation in Cuba will not improve. But outside pressure—sadly absent today, in the case of Europe or Latin America—has proved insufficient. At the same time, the U.S. embargo policy has been a unmitigated failure.The logical route to follow is the one HRW and others have suggested: The U.S. should shift from a policy of regime change to a policy of human-rights promotion. The Obama administration should approach the European Union and the Latin American democracies and offer to lift the embargo on the condition that these countries join the U.S. in pressuring Cuba on a single demand: the release of all political prisoners, including those incarcerated for "dangerousness."Once the U.S. government has secured this commitment and a multilateral coalition is in place, the U.S. should end its failed embargo policy. Cuba should be given a brief and specified period—the report recommends six months—to release all of its political prisoners.If the government of Raúl Castro complies, it will set in motion a process whose ultimate goal is the full normalization of relations with the U.S. and the EU, as well as compliance with the democratic standards of the Organization of American States. If it does not, this multilateral coalition should enact targeted sanctions directed at the leadership of the Castro government. The Castro brothers know that nothing would be more threatening to their half-century monopoly on power than the end of the U.S. embargo, which they use as a justification for their ongoing abuses. Indeed, they appear to be deliberately sabotaging normalization by making the human-rights situation worse. This is why a multilateral approach is crucial. According to the Spanish daily El País, President Obama asked Spanish Prime Minister Rodríguez Zapatero three weeks ago to "Tell the Cubans we are taking steps, but if they don’t take them too, it will be very difficult for us to continue." The Obama administration gets it. Now, if only we could get more Latin American countries to stop countenancing Cuba’s human-rights violations and play a constructive role. Mr. Castaneda, a professor at New York University and fellow at the New America Foundation, was Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000 to 2003.

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