Time to tighten the screws on Cuba




With President Raul Castro’s impending retirement, the United States should consider stepping up pressure on Havana, relenting only when new leadership grants the Cuban people real democratic gains, argues Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams.

Contrary to claims and some expectations, “the increases in tourism and remittances and the opening of official diplomatic ties did not spur gains for Cubans on the human rights and political front,” he writes:

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an independent nongovernmental organization, found that in 2016 Cuban authorities detained 9,940 individuals, a record number. There were 5,155 detentions reported in 2017, but there were likely many more prisoners of conscience. Internet censorship has not diminished nor has access expanded. There have, of course, been no free elections.

The Military Units of Production Assistance (UMAP) as “a very dark affair in the history of revolutionary Cuba,” said singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés, who described them as “concentration camps” where thousands of young people were sent to be “reeducated” by order of Fidel Castro, he told Diario de Cuba:

In an interview with the newspaper La Tercera the musician described his experience between 1965 and 1967, when these detention centers were in operation and where he was subjected to forced labor and rigid indoctrination. Milanés managed to escape and flee to Havana, but was jailed for insubordination.

The architect of Cuba’s Gulag was no less than Che Guevara, a figure lionized by some in the West, notes Carl Gershman, head of the National Endowment for Democracy. The real heroes of Cuba’s revolution against dictatorship were figures like Pedro Luis Boitel and Huber Matos, who remained true to democratic principles, he adds.

One would think that remittances – averaging perhaps as much as $3 billion annually – could help democracy in Cuba by financing civil society, note analysts Javier Corrales and James Loxton. But because poverty is rampant and financing scarce, most remittances get used for household consumption or self-employment activities, with very little left over for the sorts of civic groups that are indispensable for democracy to emerge, they write:

Perhaps the only possible pressure for greater democracy after the succession could come from a conflict between the party and the military. These are separate entities, each with its own culture, resources and base of support. It is conceivable that an eventual conflict between the party and the military could produce a political earthquake, which could in theory produce a political transition.

Given the failure of previous efforts, the United States should maintain or heighten pressure on Cuba for at least two reasons, adds Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

  • First, U.S. policy should reflect American values. The United States should refuse to relax any trade policies that will bring economic gains to the regime unless there are tangible benefits for the Cuban people. …. At the very least, the United States should avoid any words or actions that assist the regime in maintaining its tyranny or undermine the morale of Cubans working peacefully for change.
  • Second, Cubans, as well as the international community, will expect improvements with the end of the Castro period. The United States should press hard for change once Raul is out because it’s unclear if the regime will be able to keep its monopoly on power and deny political and human rights progress.



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