When Human Rights Watch released their report on November 18th, detailing the continued brutal and violent repression of Cubans on the island, the liberal media wasted no time in pouncing upon two small paragraphs contained in the 123-page report. Located in the Recommendations section, these paragraphs call for an end to the US embargo against the Cuban dictatorship, calling it a “costly and misguided failure,” and proclaiming that it “has done nothing to improve the situation of human rights in Cuba.” The embargo, the report authors go on to say, does nothing but provide the dictatorship with a scapegoat for its incompetence and helps it garner sympathy from other nations.
Efforts by the US government to press for change by imposing a sweeping economic embargo have proven to be a costly and misguided failure. The embargo imposes indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban population as a whole, and has done nothing to improve the situation of human rights in Cuba. Rather than isolating Cuba, the policy has isolated the United States, enabling the Castro government to garner sympathy abroad while simultaneously alienating Washington’s potential allies.
There is no question: the Cuban government bears full and exclusive responsibility for the abuses it commits. However, so long as the embargo remains in place, the Castro government will continue to manipulate US policy to cast itself as a Latin American David standing up to the US Goliath, a role it exploits skillfully.
In the estimation of the liberal media and supporters of diplomatic relations with a vile regime, these statements by Human Rights Watch vindicate their calls for engagement and dialogue with the Castro dictatorship.
The Los Angeles Times had this to say after listing some of the crimes listed by the report that are being committed against the Cuban people.
Nevertheless, the rights group said the United States should lift its 47-year-old embargo on travel and trade with Cuba, calling it a costly failure. It urged more targeted pressure to improve human rights conditions.
“No longer would Cuba be able to manipulate the embargo as a pretext for repressing its own people,” the report said.
Take the embargo away, the Los Angeles Times would like us to believe, and we deal a brutal political blow to the communist regime.
The New York Times, however, decided to take it even a step further. Not to be out-liberaled by the LA Times, the NYT decided to paint these statements by HRW as a point of solidarity between the human rights organization and the dictatorship in Cuba.
On at least one point, however, the New York-based human rights organization and the Cuban government agree: the need to end the American trade embargo on Cuba.
While Cuba considers it a cruel policy by an imperialist government that makes its citizens suffer, Human Rights Watch called it ineffective in pressuring the Cuban government to change its ways and successful only in imposing even more hardship on everyday Cubans.
The problem this interpretation of HRW’s view of the embargo has is that there are more than two paragraphs addressing the US embargo in this report. As usual, the media and the supporters of the regime have cherry picked the points they agree with and left out the statements that give context to HRW’s recommendations on how to deal with the Cuban dictatorship. It is true that HRW believes that the embargo has failed to improve human rights in Cuba, but what the liberal media and supporters of improved political relations with Cuba are not telling you is that the report goes on to say that the policy of engagement and dialogue being carried out by European countries and Canada is just as ineffective.
Another little tidbit being left out of news stories and speeches citing HRW’s call for an end to the embargo is how the report calls for a 6-month deadline to be imposed on the regime to release all political prisoners. It goes on to say that before the US lifts the embargo, it must secure commitments from nations that engage in commerce with the regime that they will join the US in exerting political and economic sacntions on the Castro government if they fail to release these prisoners of conscience within the 6-month period.
Here is the text from the report so you can get the context of HRW’s recommendations:
Just as the US embargo policy has proved counterproductive, so have the policies of the European Union and Canada failed to exert effective pressure on Cuba. The EU’s Common Policy sets clear human rights benchmarks for economic cooperation with Cuba, but the cost of noncompliance has been insufficient to compel change by the Castro government. Canada lacks such benchmarks, promoting significant investment in the island at the same time as it decries the Cuban government’s abuses.
Worse still, Latin American governments across the political spectrum have been reluctant to criticize Cuba, and in some cases have openly embraced the Castro government, despite its dismal human rights record. Countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador hold Cuba up as a model, while others quietly admit its abuses even as they enthusiastically push for Cuba’s reintegration into regional bodies such as the Organization of American States (OAS). The silence of the Latin governments condones Cuba’s abusive behavior, and perpetuates a climate of impunity that allows repression to continue. This is particularly troubling coming from a region in which many countries have learned firsthand the high cost of international indifference to state-sponsored repression.
Not only have all of these policies—US, European, Canadian, and Latin American—failed individually to improve human rights in Cuba, but their divided and even contradictory nature has allowed the Cuban government to evade effective pressure and deflect criticism of its practices.
To remedy this continuing failure, the US must end its failed embargo policy. It should shift the goal of its Cuba strategy away from regime change and toward promoting human rights. In particular, it should replace its sweeping bans on travel and trade with Cuba with more effective forms of pressure.
This move would fundamentally shift the balance in the Cuban government’s relationship with its own people and the international community. No longer would Cuba be able to manipulate the embargo as a pretext for repressing its own people. Nor would other countries be able to blame the US policy for their own failures to hold Cuba accountable for its abuses.
However, ending the current embargo policy by itself will not bring an end to Cuba’s repression. Only a multilateral approach will have the political power and moral authority to press the Cuban government to end its repressive practices. Therefore, before changing its policy, the US should work to secure commitments from the EU, Canada, and Latin American allies that they will join together to pressure Cuba to meet a single, concrete demand: the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.
In order to enforce this demand, the multilateral coalition should establish a clear definition of who constitutes a political prisoner—one that includes all Cubans imprisoned for exercising their fundamental rights, including those incarcerated for the pre-criminal offense of “dangerousness” and the 53 dissidents still in prison from the 2003 crackdown. It should also set a firm deadline for compliance, granting the Raúl Castro government six months to meet this demand.
Most important, the members of the coalition should commit themselves to holding the Cuban government accountable should it fail to release its political prisoners. The penalties should be significant enough that they bear real consequences for the Cuban government. And they should be focused enough to target the Cuban leadership, rather than the Cuban population on the whole. Options include adopting targeted sanctions on the government officials, such as travel bans and asset freezes; and withholding any new forms of foreign investment until Cuba meets the demand.
It is interesting that after you read the fine print surrounding Human Rights Watch’s call for an end to the US embargo, it sounds more like a call for the entire world to join together to pressure the despots in Havana to respect the rights of all Cubans on the island. Even more interesting is the fact that this is what the “hardliners” have been asking for all along. This is why you should always read the fine print.