The Miami Herald, Andrés Oppenheimer
One year after Cuba reopened its embassy in Washington on July 20, 2015, Cuba’s human rights situation is much worse. It’s time for Latin America and the U.S. to stop clapping, and demand that Cuba’s dictatorship start allowing fundamental freedoms
On the first anniversary since Cuba reopened its embassy in Washington, D.C., one thing is clear: The reestablishment of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic ties — which I have cautiously supported in this column — has not helped improve by one iota Cuba’s human rights situation. On the contrary, human rights abuses have worsened.
This is not a conclusion based on random anecdotes from the island, but the result of a well-documented report just released by the Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, the island’s oldest and most respected non-government, human-rights monitoring group.
According to the commission, short-term political detentions have gone way up so far this year, from a monthly average of 718 last year to a monthly average of 1,095 during the first six months of this year. The number of political detentions skyrocketed during the months before and after President Barack Obama’s visit to the island in March, the monthly figures show.
During the first six months of this year, there have been 6,573 short-term political detentions in Cuba, which — if they continue at their six-month rate — would be a significant increase over last year’s figure. There were 8,616 documented short-term political detentions last year, 6,424 in 2013, and 2,074 in 2010, says the commission.
In addition to the rise in short-term detentions, the number of peaceful opponents who have been sentenced to longer terms in prison or labor camps over the past year has risen from about 70 to more than 100, the commission says.
“The civil and political rights situation has worsened over the past year, no doubt about it,” commission founder Elizardo Sánchez told me in a telephone interview. “In terms of [Cuba’s] domestic politics, the reestablishment of ties hasn’t had any positive impact.”
Sánchez added that “after Obama’s speech in Havana, which was very good, the government started a campaign to discredit the U.S. president, which was started by Fidel Castro himself. They hope to erase the memory of Obama’s speech from Cubans’ memory, and to continue improving ties with the outside world, while maintaining an iron fist at home.”
José Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas department of the Human Rights Watch monitoring group, agrees that there has been no improvement in Cuba’s human rights scene since Cuba reopened the embassy on July 20, 2015. But Vivanco, who like Sánchez supports the reestablishment of U.S.-Cuban relations and the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, said it would be a mistake to expect that the normalization of bilateral ties will lead to less political repression on the island.
“Neither the opening of embassies nor the eventual total dismantling of the U.S. embargo will change the nature of the regime or bring about democratic and human rights improvements in Cuba,” Vivanco said. “Only effective and strong pressure from democratic leaders in the region and outside the region will achieve that.”
My opinion: I fully agree. It’s time for the Obama administration and Latin America’s democracies to cut the celebrations over the reestablishment of U.S. diplomatic ties and the end of the Cold War in our region. That’s old news by now.
Instead of extending the fiesta indefinitely, it’s time for Latin American democracies to denounce the region’s oldest military dictatorship. (It’s not mentioned in most articles on Cuba, but the island’s president, Gen. Raúl Castro, is a military dictator who alongside his brother Fidel Castro has overseen thousands of political executions and has not allowed a free election, political parties or independent media in almost six decades.)
Enough is enough! There is no excuse for Cuba to increase political repression at a time when Obama is dismantling what’s left of the U.S. embargo on the island, allowing U.S. cruise liners and commercial planes to ultimately carry tens of thousands of Americans to Cuba — their numbers rose by 84 percent over the first six months this year — and the first Sheraton hotel to open its doors in Havana.
It’s time for Latin America and the world to stop the clapping, and publicly demand that Cuba free political prisoners, stop the beatings of peaceful political opponents, and start allowing freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and free elections. It’s time for Cuba’s octogenarian military dinosaurs to go.