Test for U.S. Shift on Cuba Is Whether Rights Improve
By MICHAEL R. GORDONDEC. 24, 2014
WASHINGTON — President Obama's decision to restore full diplomatic
relations with Cuba will face an early test next year as the White House
tries to make good on its contention that the policy shift will lead to
a gradual improvement in the Cuban government's dismal record on human
The Cuban authorities have promised to release 53 political prisoners,
but at first they wanted to send the prisoners to the United States.
American officials insisted, however, that they be allowed to remain in
Cuba with no restrictions on their activities. The Cubans agreed.
American officials will be watching to see if all 53 are released, and
if the Cuban government undermines the gesture by continuing to detain
or harass other political opponents. Some American officials believe
that Cuba has been holding more political prisoners than the 53 and say
that it will be important to push next year to secure the release of the
others, as well.
Senior Obama administration officials insist that the improved ties
between the countries will strengthen the prospects for reform by
precluding President Raúl Castro from blaming American efforts to
isolate his country for the failings of Cuba's government.
"It denies the regime an excuse and enables us to leverage stronger
pressure from Europe and Latin America, which we couldn't do effectively
as long as our policy was viewed around the world as a bigger problem
than the Castros' repression," said Tom Malinowski, the State
Department's top official for human rights. "For many of us who worked
on human rights in Cuba for many years, it feels like this is the first
time we really have a chance."
The policy will face other early challenges. A second test will be
whether Cuba makes good on its pledge to allow American companies to
improve Internet access in Cuba, a commitment that White House officials
highlighted as a way of expanding the ability of the Cuban public to
communicate with Americans. The new administration policy also seeks to
help Cuba's small private sector by expanding United States exports to
Cuba's entrepreneurs and small farmers.
Obama administration officials are calculating that they can enlist
support from European and Latin American countries to persuade Cuba to
accede to a major treaty protecting political freedom — the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — and, ultimately,
to improve its legal system.
Specific talks between the United States and Cuba on human rights have
yet to be scheduled. The compartmentalized nature of the secret
negotiations, in which the American side was represented by a deputy
national security adviser to Mr. Obama and a senior National Security
Council aide, means that the rest of the administration is still trying
to flesh out a strategy to advance political freedoms in a nation that
has been a notorious violator of human rights.
In his news conference last week, Mr. Obama said his policy could
involve "carrots as well as sticks" to induce the Cuban government to
make changes, but administration officials have not publicly specified
what they might be.
"The State Department was not part of the negotiations; neither was the
Cuban Foreign Ministry," said Tim Rieser, a foreign policy aide to
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, one of the Senate's leading human rights
champions. "It is going to be a process of determining how best to
advance our human rights goals."
Cuba's record on human rights is well documented. The State Department's
annual human rights report said this year that the Cuban government
carried out arbitrary arrests, failed to hold fair trials, spied on
private communications, opposed free speech, restricted its citizens'
access to the Internet and refused to recognize independent human rights
Human rights advocates say the Cuban government has relied less on long
prison terms to silence dissent and more on short-term detentions, which
rose to more than 8,400 this year, according to the Cuban Commission for
Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an independent human rights group.
An especially pernicious practice, the State Department report notes, is
a legal provision that allows the Cuban government to detain people for
up to four years for "potential dangerousness." The measure, the State
Department says, has been used to "silence peaceful political opponents."
"Most human rights abuses were official acts committed at the direction
of the government," the State Department report says. "Impunity for the
perpetrators remained widespread."
Source: Test for U.S. Shift on Cuba Is Whether Rights Improve -