Reversing U.S. policy on Cuba will not improve human rights, experts say

U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro meeting in early 2016 in Havana, Cuba. (Credit: Associated Press)

Human rights experts are warning about negative impacts from U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan to revive some of the trade and travel restrictions with Cuba that former President Barack Obama had relaxed in an effort to improve relations between the two countries.

Trump is expected to travel to Miami on Friday to announce reversals to elements of the 2015 Cuba policy, which saw embassies reopen, direct flights resume and renewed business after half a century of cold war tensions. Many had said the sanctions against the Caribbean nation had accomplished little, other than to undermine the economic opportunities of Cubans.

The Trump Administration, however, contends reverting to the punitive regime is still needed in order to force the communist country to improve on human rights and democratic freedoms. Addressing the Senate foreign relations committee in Washington on Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Obama’s policy effectively removed pressure on the Cuban regime to enact neededreforms, reported the Guardian.

“Cuba has failed to improve its own human rights record, political opponents continue to be imprisoned, dissidents continue to be jailed, women continue to be harassed,” Tillerson said.

“So what we have to achieve in approaching Cuba is, if we’re going to sustain the sunny side of this relationship, Cuba must – absolutely must – begin to address its human rights challenges.”

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The reaction from advocates for greater engagement with Cuba has been swift and critical. Some policy experts warn the administration’s changes could cost thousands of Americans jobs, and that rolling back any of Obama’s policy would be hasty, since the tiny and relatively poor island nation simply hasn’t had enough time to enact the change desired by Washington.

“Normalization was never going to create democracy in Cuba overnight,” Tomas Bilbao, founder of a Washington, D.C., consulting firm who is active in promoting harmonious U.S.-Cuban relations, said to the LA Times. “The idea was to increase the flow of people, resources and ideas and make the Cuban people less reliant on the Cuban state.”

And it did; in the months following Obama’s dramatic move to renew relations with the Cuban regime in 2015, U.S. chicken, grain and other agricultural producers exported tons of products to Cuba, while Cubans were suddenly allowed to travel out of the country more easily. According to some media reports, an estimated 20 percent of the economy is now in private hands for the first time since Cuba’s 1959 revolution.

In yesterday’s address to the Senate committee, even Tillerson agreed that moves toward more normal relations with the U.S. have helped some Cubans lift themselves out of poverty and benefitted U.S. companies.

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However, Tillerson said there is a “dark side” to relations with Cuba, noting that Havana continues to jail political opponents and harass dissidents.

Rights groups have also called on the Cuban government to better permit its citizens’ full freedom of expression, but warn that reverting to the outdated sanctions approach would be counterproductive. This is the view taken by experts at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights and social justice in the Americas.

“The Trump administration is taking exactly the wrong approach if it really wants to spur improvements in the human rights climate in Cuba. This reversal is fundamentally misguided,” WOLA Senior Associate for Cuba Marguerite Jiménez said in a statement Tuesday.

She added that reinstating sanctions with Cuba “will inevitably halt progress and only make life more difficult for Cubans on the island,” and the U.S. needs to engage in open and equal dialogue with Cuba — rather than make demands Cuba is sure to reject — if it is to encourage transformational social and economic changes over the long term.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com