Two weeks ago, months of closed-door negotiations between the Obama administration and the Cuban government finally culminated in an eagerly-anticipated announcement of sweeping reforms, with the end goal of normalizing relations with Cuba. Whilst the Congressionally-mandated embargo on Cuba remains intact, the historic deal takes steps to remove Cuba from the State Department list of countries that sponsor terrorism and reduces travel and trade restrictions. It also facilitates financial transactions, and the White House additionally announced an intention to help Cuba upgrade its Internet system.
The case in favour of said measures is strong. The sanctions have crippled Cuba’s economy and made meaningful economic growth and poverty alleviation all but impossible. It also reflected an undesirable geopolitical status quo. The US no longer pursues its archaic and ineffective Cold War-era policy of diplomatic non-engagement with Communist countries. Moreover, it is Washington consensus that the policies adopted have failed miserably in their intentions of toppling the regime. Under the rule of Raul Castro, some modest but important economic reforms have taken place, which have allowed Cuba’s entrepreneurial class to blossom and its growing tourism industry has created employment as well as greater cultural dialogue between Cuba and the rest of the world. The efforts of Cuban health workers in assisting with the UN’s containment of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa have also been rightly applauded by the international community.
Any deal that recognises the changes that Cuba has undergone since the embargo was imposed in 1960 is therefore welcome. But the progress of the small and deeply repressive island nation can easily be overstated, as can the effects of the US’s normalization policy.
Obama was right in his press release to acknowledge the mistakes of previous administrations and to recognise the embargo’s failure. Indeed, he just stopped short of outright condemning his own country for its history. Upon closer inspection of the deal struck, however, it is difficult to ascertain what concessions the US managed to get out of it for themselves. It is clear on the Cuban side how the regime benefits; greater economic mobility and capacity for growth, crucial in a time when it is being hit hard by the declining price of oil, as well as diplomatic ties with a world superpower. In contrast, the US bagged itself the release of 53 American political prisoners.
This is not just problematic from the point of view of the US’s interests; the deal leaves much to be desired for Cuban civil society. The fact that 53 political prisoners were released is a rather paltry gesture given that Cuba has over 8,000 political prisoners, according to Human Rights Watch estimates. To compare this with Vietnam, previously on the receiving end of the same isolation policy, Vietnam has a population of 92 million people and about 70 political prisoners. Cuba has a population of 11 million people and over 8,000 political prisoners. The shocking state of civil liberties in Cuba doesn’t end there. The Cuban government bans all internet access, and though internet backchannels exist, they are incredibly expensive, virtually disabling the possibility of using social media to bring about grassroots change.
Now let’s talk about political opposition. Cuba is the only country in the Americas to suppress virtually any form of political dissent, using what Human Rights Watch has described as an Orwellian law that enables the punishment of potential dissidents before they have committed a crime. Prison conditions are appalling, with inmates denied access to adequate food and basic medical attention. Last May, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an independent monitoring group that the Cuban government views as illegal, reported over 1,120 arrests of peaceful dissidents in that month alone. It’s estimated that 10,000 of such arrests take place per year. Journalist Guillermo Fariñas, winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, has been arrested every Monday for 19 consecutive weeks. He was tortured each time.
The lesson to be learned is this: the old adage of economic liberalization leading to political liberalization is pure fiction. Aside from modern-day Cuba, one need only look towards its strong allies Venezuela and China to illustrate this. And it is unclear how the US has used this opportunity to pressurize the government into undertaking more meaningful reforms. It was always able to do so. Obama had the upper hand in the negotiations from day one; the Castro regime is arguably at its most vulnerable point, as a result of potentially losing its oil patronage from Venezuela and infighting within the regime. Why it did not ask Cuba to commit to democratization and liberalisation measures is unclear, and a big tactical error.
But whilst Cuba’s human rights record leaves much to be desired, there are signs of potential progress emerging, coming from regional mechanisms and the empowerment of civilians. If Washington lives up to its promise of helping Cuba upgrade its Internet system, nascent political blogs and social media sites could help generate a more widespread and accessible forum for exchange of ideas between members of the dissident community. This could allow a strong and organised opposition to mobilise, creating a credible alternative to the Castro regime. There is also talk of Cuba becoming more engaged with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which in 2009 lifted its ban on Cuba joining. This could allow its more liberal neighbours, such as Chile, Argentina and Brazil, to levy political pressure on the Castro regime. Criticism and pressure of this kind is more likely to be listened to as well, coming from a source which isn’t seen as Western and adversarial.
The new measures promise a lot, but certainly won’t be enough to empower civil society to a point where the regime introduces democratic reform and scales back its brutal repression of journalists. But to be free in a society is multi-faceted. The kind of marketplace that Cuban civil society craves is one of ideas- not just of imported goods.