Obama in Cuba: Building a new human rights promotion narrative

By: Arturo Lopez-Levy

President Obama’s trip to Cuba from March 20 to 22 articulated a new approach to promoting human rights on the island, and perhaps in the region. Key to American engagement with improving human rights is support for economic modernization through an opening of the U.S. market to Cuba’s private sector and allowing people-to-people contact as a way to connect the Cuban population with American society. There is broad academic agreement about the importance for democracy of a market-oriented, open, prosperous economic and social life in Cuba. Such development will enable the emergence of autonomous middle class demands for better governance with transparency and civility.

Since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in December 17, 2014, the Obama Administration had insisted on the convenience of his new policy for improving the lives of the Cuban people.  President Obama explained the logics of his rapprochement in his interview to Yahoo news in the first anniversary of the announcement to re-launch diplomatic relations: “the more that they see the benefits of U.S. investment, the more that U.S. tourist dollars become woven into their economy, the more that telecommunications is opened up so that Cubans are getting information unfettered by censorship, the more you are laying the foundation for the bigger changes that are coming over”.

Across the globe, market-led development in conditions of political stability and expanding property rights has brought crucial respect for individual rights. In Cuba since the beginning of the economic reform after the VI Congress of the CCP in 2011, the government has responded to pressures from the population by expanding the private and cooperative sectors and after October 2013 by allowing Cuban citizens to travel abroad without the infamous exit permit.

Another area in which there is a significant human rights improvement is freedom of religion. After a dialogue between the Catholic Church and the government, and the visit of several religious leaders including three popes in less than fifteen years, a new expansion of the role of religious communities in Cuba’s civil society is evident. Sunday schools, publications, youth activities, humanitarian support for the elderly, and a new non-communist renewal of Cuban nationalism are taking place in activities of the religious communities that emphasize themes of national reconciliation over class struggle and political divisions.

Just in the first year of their implementation, U.S. engagement policies were important catalysts for reform. If human rights are measured in terms of people working independently, more access to internet and a much more pluralistic spectrum of political, economic and social ideas, Obama’s opening to Cuba is already a success. Americans’ travel and remittances to Cuba had already supported Cuban start-ups and improved civil society’s autonomy. There is every reason to expect that these trends will unfold in Cuba throughout the end of Raul Castro’s administration and beyond.

It is true that the rights of political opponents of the Cuban Communist Party to contest politically in competitive multiparty elections has not significantly changed. This is undoubtedly part of the agenda based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but reducing the discussion about the state of human rights in Cuba to the fortunes of the radical political opposition associates the Cuban opposition brand with the embargo and unlawful US interference in Cuba’s internal affairs.

The best contribution the Obama Administration can make to a universal, indivisible and interdependent advancement of human rights in Cuba is opening access to U.S. markets, investments, technology, universities, and society. Cuba’s economic reform and political liberalization have the potential to improve significantly the lives of millions of Cubans and help thousands to lift themselves out of poverty. Obama’s hope with his trip to Cuba was- in the words of deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes- to make the new policy of engagement and support for reform “irreversible”.

During his trip, president Obama was particularly careful in disassociating his administration’s policy from the discourses about an idyllic relation between Cuba and the United States before 1959. The imposition of the 1902 Platt Amendment; the imperial visit by President Calvin Coolidge in 1928 for the VI Pan-American conference; and subservience expressed by then-Cuban Secretary of State Orestes Ferrara expressing gratitude for US intervention in Cuban affairs are seen by most Cubans as shameful. Even then-president Kennedy repudiated this past in the midst of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. While Obama did not repudiate this past, he at least avoided mention of the topic in his main speech to the Cuban people.

Obama connected instead to the legacy of political dialogue in the two visits of former president Carter and his own secretaries to Cuba in 2015. He recognized that Inter-American human rights are most advanced by a US proudly trumpeting its achievements fighting against its own imperfections. President Obama presented his own first African American presidency as the culmination of many such struggles, and he highlighted the US government’s humanitarian and altruistic record in the world in areas such as the struggle against AIDS, Ebola and other pandemics. To launch international health cooperation between the United States and Cuba that would truly benefit the poorest nations will require ending the US-sponsored professional medical parole program designed by the George W. Bush administration.

President Obama’s discourse in Cuba was also targeted to some audiences in the United States. He reminded hardliners that human rights cannot be imposed; they flow from each country’s history and the demands of its people. In Cuba, movement towards political contestation needs to develop in a gradual and stable manner, building on the achievements of the revolution, such as security, and universal health and education. Obama can openly acknowledge those improvements in human rights as the ingredients to a stable democracy. Future democracy in Cuba will need to preserve the existing social order, improving on it without reckless promotion of regime change devoid of economic, cultural and political stabilizers. Such a reversal could result in chaos and disorder, social division, calls for foreign interventions, and even new non-democratic patterns.

To present human rights in Cuba as an American demand is a disservice to this positive cause. Real human rights norms are the universal aspiration of every decent person. As in all nations, Cuba should sign, ratify and implement human rights treaties because it is good for Cuba’s people. Violations of free expression and association, nepotism, corruption, and consumer abuse violate the Cuban people’s traditions of fairness, honesty and liberty. Among those who denounced rights abuses, disrespect for citizens’ dignity and overconcentration of power are Jose Marti, Cuba’s most prominent hero and thinker, and Fidel Castro himself, who denounced the lack of freedom of expression and exalted republican and democratic forms of government in his legal defense “History will absolve me” after the beginning of the revolution with the attack to the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Striving to better the standards of democratic governance make real the principles of the Cuban revolution and Cuba’s constitution.

Arturo Lopez-Levy is a PhD Candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and lecturer at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. Learn more about the Latin America Center at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School.