Human Rights and Democracy in Cuba

by Steve Patt
March 25, 2016

President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba, and his speeches there, have triggered a flood of comments about human rights and democracy in Cuba. Obama’s own comments were diplomatic, saying for example “We’ll speak out on behalf of universal human rights, including freedom of speech, and assembly, and religion” and “I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections”, without ever directly accusing Cuba of denying those rights. The meaning of Obama’s words, however, was clear to all.

But others, and not just those on the right, have been more direct. Trevor Noah, the new host of the liberal The Daily Show, last night labelled Raúl Castro a “dictator”, called Cuba “repressive”, and claimed Cuba has a “miserable human rights record”. Eugene Robinson, the liberal columnist of the Washington Post, writes about Cuba’s “suffocating repression” in his latest column. The Democrat Party-oriented San Jose Mercury News editorializes about Cuba’s “horrific restrictions on free speech“; if you didn’t know any better you might think people are being beheaded in Cuba for speaking out.

Again, those are the liberals talking, not Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. So what is the truth of the matter?

Human Rights in Cuba

One can hardly talk about human rights in Cuba without starting with the most egregious violation of human rights on the island, a word which Obama did not utter in his two days in Cuba — Guantánamo. The U.S. currently holds 91 prisoners there, although it has held as many as 780. They have been imprisoned for as long as 15 years now, many suffering severe torture, and only a handful have even been charged with a crime. Nine have died in captivity; at least three of those were murdered. Stunningly, the U.S. even admits that some of those still held are completely innocent. Yet, the prison remains in operation.

Raúl Castro responded decisively at the Tuesday press conference about Cuba’s human rights record by noting that Cuba complies with 47 out of 61 international treaties on human and civil rights, and that no country in the world including the United States complies with all of them.

He further defined what for Cuba rightly constitutes human rights:

“Do you think there’s any more sacred right than the right to health, so that billions of children don’t die just for the lack of a vaccine or a drug or a medicament? Do you agree with the right to free education for all those born anywhere in the world or in any country? I think many countries don’t think this is a human right. In Cuba, all children are born in a hospital and they are registered that same day, because when mothers are in advance pregnancy they go to hospitals days before, many days before delivery, so that all children are born in hospitals. It doesn’t matter if they live in faraway places or in mountains or hills. We have many other rights — a right to health, the right to education.

“… Do you think that for equal work, men get better paid than women just for the fact of being women? Well, in Cuba, women get the same pay for same work. I can give you many, many examples.”

Cuban dance students

Cuban children enjoying dance class

Education, health care, food and housing aren’t guaranteed rights in the United States, neither for children nor anyone else. The reality is that millions of U.S. people are homeless, children go to bed hungry and healthcare is a for-profit enterprise becoming more and more inaccessible.

Cuba, on the other hand, actually guarantees those rights, and many more. This widely-circulated list demonstrates some of the implications:

  • 900 thousand children die every month because of poverty: None of them is Cuban.
  • 200 million children in the world sleep on the streets today. None of them is Cuban.
  • 250 million children under 13 have to work in order to survive. None of them is Cuban.
  • More than one million children are forced into prostitution and tens of thousands have been victims of human organ trafficking. None of them is Cuban.
  • 25 thousand children in the world die every day of measles, malaria, diphtheria, pneumonia and malnutrition. None of them is Cuban.

Do these statistics apply only to poor third-world countries and not to the U.S.? No. An estimated 35,000 Americans (more than ten times the number that died on 9/11) die every single year due to inadequate or complete lack of health care.

There is one more item not on that list that we should add: police in the U.S. shot and killed 1,134 people in 2015, many of them unarmed. By contrast, if you Google “people killed by police in Cuba” you won’t get a single relevant hit, even from right-wing websites that are notorious for spreading false information about Cuba.

In May I visited Cuba and had several conversations with Cubans about police brutality and murder in the United States. And even though they had heard about some of the most famous cases, it was clear that they simply couldn’t grasp the reality of what this meant, because the experience was so completely foreign (in both senses of the word) to them. One cab driver told us that it was common for people to argue with police. Try that in the United States. Better yet, don’t, especially if you’re Black or Latino.

But what about those rights the U.S. pretends to hold even more sacred than the right to health care, rights like freedom of speech? In the U.S., it only takes a war to see those rights fly out the window. Franklin Roosevelt rounded up more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans during WWII and locked them up in internment camps. More recently, police arrested nearly 8000 peaceful protesters as they broke up the Occupy demonstrations that swept the nation in 2011-2012, and dispersed tens of thousands more.

So is Cuba at war? Technically, no, although the U.S. has launched one (fortunately losing) war aimed at overthrowing the Cuban Revolution — the Bay of Pigs invasion. It has also sponsored or at least tolerated countless acts of terrorism against Cuba, acts which have caused the deaths of 3,478 Cubans through the years. U.S. attempts to accomplish its goal have been unceasing, if not always military or violent in nature.

The U.S. continues to violate Cuban airwaves (and international law) with its TV and Radio Marti, and it was during the administration of Barack Obama that the U.S. created “Zunzuneo,” a “Cuban Twitter” service aimed at undermining the Cuban government.

The Helms-Burton act, passed in 1996 and signed by President Bill Clinton, declares Cuba a “national security threat to the United States” and makes regime change in Cuba official U.S. policy, and enshrines and strengthens the blockade which had been in effect since 1960. And less than one month before his trip to Cuba, Obama renewed a proclamation declaring a “state of national emergency” with respect to Cuba.

In his talk to the Cuban people, Obama claimed he wanted to change U.S. policy because it “wasn’t working,” and called for an end to the embargo because it “was only hurting the Cuban people instead of helping them.” Helping them? The Cuban government has calculated that the blockade has cost Cuba $1.1 trillion dollars since it started, money Cuba could have used to really help its people. The U.S. may not be militarily at war with Cuba, but its one-sided economic war is very real.

And what was (and is) the real purpose of the blockade, and of U.S. policy toward Cuba? It was actually put into words in a State Department memo in 1960 [emphasis added]:

“The majority of Cubans support Castro… The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship… it follows that every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba… to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”

Can there be any doubt why Cuba views the cruel and illegal U.S. blockade which tries to deny food, medicine and other essential goods to the Cuban people as the biggest violation of human rights?

The U.S. has no intention to end the funding of groups like Ladies in White, or of American agents of subversion like Alan Gross. Indeed, every aspect of the changes Obama has implemented are designed precisely to continue U.S. attempts at subversion and regime change.

Why else would he exercise his executive power to make the sale of telecommunications equipment to Cuba legal, but not, say, air conditioners or plumbing equipment? Precisely because the former can be used as tools of subversion whereas the latter cannot. Likewise the changes which allow sales to private Cuban businesses, but not to government entities. What better way to try to create class differences in Cuba which can eventually be used to undermine Cuba’s socialist character?

Cubans are free to speak their minds about what is wrong (and right) with their government, and they do. But Cuba has every right to restrict the actions of Cubans who collaborate with the U.S. government and its attempts to undermine and overthrow the Cuban Revolution.

Democracy in Cuba

“Democracy” and “elections” are not synonymous. Democracy means people having a say in the decisions that affect their lives, and Cuba is replete with that kind of democracy. In 2012-2013, for example, major changes were being contemplated to the Cuban Labor Code. The draft was discussed in nearly 7,000 local meetings by more than 2 million workers, and 101 articles were modified as a result of the local-level consultations.

Fidel Castro and three of the Cuban Five voting in the Cuban elections of April, 2015

Fidel Castro and three of the Cuban Five voting in the Cuban elections of April, 2015

But what about elections? To hear Obama or various U.S. commentators, you would think there are no elections. But that’s simply not the case. There are regular elections in Cuba, elections in which people are nominated by their neighbors, not by the Communist Party. Elections which actually require by law that there be two or more candidates for each post. Elections in which campaign spending to influence an election is prohibited. Young people begin voting at age 16!

Obama emphasized voting, and implied there is something wrong with Cuba’s system of indirect elections, in which the President and members of the National Assembly are elected not by popular vote, but by those holding offices at lower levels. But many countries elect their leader (usually called Prime Minister) by a vote of Parliament.

In the U.S., Senators were elected not by the people but by state legislatures as recently as 1913 when the 17th Amendment was passed. And the President is still not elected by popular vote, but by the electoral college, a distinction which allowed George Bush, who lost to Al Gore by a half-million votes, to become President in 2000 (with help from the Supreme Court).

In several states, people convicted of felonies can never vote even after completing sentence and probation. That means in Florida alone almost 400,000 people are disenfranchised, many of whom are African-American. They are part of the 35 million people who have no vote in US elections, 17 million permanent residents, 11 million undocumented people, 5 million prisoners and ex-prisoners and many homeless. Elections in the United States are typically held on a workday, putting an obstacle in the ability of working people to participate in the system. New voter ID laws and cuts in the number of polling places are placing even more obstacles in the way of poor and working people’s right to vote. In contrast, voting in Cuba is universal, and participation rates of 95% dwarf those in the United States.

On the candidate side of the process, everyone is familiar with the fact that it takes enormous sums of money to run for office in the United States. Third parties face huge obstacles to getting on the ballot, and if they do manage that feat, they’re undemocratically excluded from debates and other media coverage, making sure that the American people never hear about them.

Antonio Guerrero, one of the Cuban Five heroes unjustly imprisoned in the United States for 16 years, was finally freed and returned to Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014. On April 19, 2015, he got to vote in Cuba for the first time since he began his anti-terrorist mission. Antonio’s comment speaks to the feelings of the vast majority of the Cuban people about their democracy:

“This is one of the most beautiful and important activities we have engaged in, since it’s about demonstrating love for the Revolution, demonstrating the unity of our people, and support for our democratic electoral system – much more democratic than what others call true democracy.”