Now the Hard Work Begins

The rapprochement with Cuba is a welcome moment, but the true test is yet to come.

By , the CEO of PEN America.

In foreign policy and especially human rights, champagne moments are rare. President Barack Obama’s announcement last week of the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba was grounds to break out the bubbly. The stranglehold of a shrinking group of impassioned and unyielding Cuban-American activists was finally broken. A static policy that had helped breed a stagnant society was finally ended. Ailing American detainee Alan Gross was released, along with a former U.S. intelligence agent jailed for 20 years, and 53 Cuban political prisoners. Corks popped in Washington, where policy wonks saw the chance to reshape the United States’ position in the Americas, and sparkling cider (since you can’t buy champagne in Cuba) flowed even faster in Havana where new products, business opportunities, and freedoms suddenly seemed within reach.

As can happen after a champagne toast, things in Cuba look and feel a little different in the bright light of the next morning. While the decades-long failed policy of embargo and isolation has ended, the brutality and repression that fueled much of Washington’s anti-Cuban animus could well remain intact. And though the Obama administration was right to change tacks in its effort to advance basic freedoms and wellbeing in Cuba, normalization of relations needs to be the beginning, rather than the end, of that process.

Even assuming that the congressionally-mandated trade embargo remains in place, the steps outlined by President Obama — including increased openness to travel, exports, and remittances — should up the standard of living in Cuba. Yet the idea that increased trade and rising income will lead inexorably to the expansion of human rights has been proven wrong. Havana can look to its largest trading partner, Venezuela, and its old friend China as role models for how to expand and develop economically while still keeping a tight lid on dissent, limiting freedom of expression and association, and maintaining the political hold of the Castro regime and its cronies.

If it results in easier access to credit, upgraded technology, strengthened ties among families and nothing more, the steps taken this week by President Obama will still count as a significant victory for many ordinary Cubans. But the real triumph both for President Obama and the people of Cuba will be jumpstarted progress toward the realization of human rights that have been denied to the Cuban people for more than fifty years.

Cuba’s climate of intense political repression is well-known, yet worth recounting. In Freedom House’s 2014 global index on freedom, Cuba was rated “Not Free” and in the bottom 10 percent of the 195 nations surveyed. Cuba is the only country in the Americas to suppress virtually any form of political dissent, utilizing what Human Rights Watch has described as an Orwellian law that enables the punishment of potential dissenters before they have committed a crime. Dissidents receive long sentences after short, secret trials that rely on political conclusions, rather than evidence. Prison conditions are dire, with inmates denied access to adequate food and basic medical attention. In May of this year the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an independent monitoring group that the Cuban government views as illegal, documented over 1,120 short-term arrests of peaceful dissidents in that month alone, 6-10 of which led to transfers to high-security prisons. Comparable figures documented over time are staggering, with more than 10,000 such arrests every year. Journalist Guillermo Fariñas, winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, has been arrested every Monday for 19 consecutive weeks, and subjected to torture including hypothermia and beatings. While there have been some tentative signs of easing pressure on political prisoners in recent years, the overall climate for dissent remains dire.

This week’s announcement may make it harder for the Cuban government to justify its draconian political repression of human rights activists, independent journalists, and civil society organizations as a necessary byproduct of its epic struggle with the United States. Yet the Castro brothers have never needed much of an excuse to justify their iron hold on power. Moreover, with the embargo still in place and Rául Castro’s continued defense of Cuban socialism, it is not as if the two countries are now bosom allies. The Cuban government has for so long tuned out exhortations on human rights from American politicians and Western non-governmental organizations that it is hard to imagine these voices suddenly being heard, much less heeded.

If the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations is to lead to the restoration of respect for human rights in Cuba, it will need to be followed by a clear-eyed set of policies aimed at mobilizing actors that will have more direct influence on how Havana rules than does Washington. It will also require empowering dissidents and human rights defenders on the ground in ways that do not tarnish them, and keeping a tight spotlight on so that with the excuse of Washington’s oppression now at least partially obviated, the world and the Cuban people can see that government for what it is.

One of the most effective forces for human rights improvements in post-normalization Cuba is not the country’s looming neighbor to the North, but rather those in the South. Latin American governments have long been reticent to criticize Cuba’s dismal record, not wanting to pile onto the beleaguered nation or — worse — be seen to do Washington’s bidding. With the historic opening between Washington and Havana, capitals like Brasilia, Buenos Aires, and Santiago — all of whom pride themselves on their human rights records at home and abroad — can now use their own improving relations with the island and significant economic and political leverage to raise human rights concerns with Cuban counterparts. By fostering ties between journalists, academics, and activists within the region, these countries can help fortify diverse voices in Cuba and expand the space for open dialogue.

Cuba’s neighbors to the South should also use the historic opening as a gateway to reintegrate Cuba into the Organization of American States, a pan-regional organization from which the island nation was excluded from 1962 until 2009. While Cuba’s suspension was formally lifted five years ago, it has declined to participate in what Havana still saw as a U.S.-dominated body. Cuba’s participation would open the door for Cuba’s engagement with the OAS-sponsored Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a multilateral body that uses human rights reporters, complaints procedures, litigation, and country visits to call out abuses with the credibility of broad participation from the countries of the region.

To date, the U.N.’s human rights mechanisms — including the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva — have been the venue for regular sparring rounds between U.S. and Cuban delegates. Cuba has built solidarity among the U.N.’s post-colonial majority to criticize the United States on issues including Guantánamo and torture and, for the most part, deflect attention from its own egregious record. For 21 years running, the U.N.’s General Assembly has passed an annual resolution calling for an end to the U.S. blockade. Seeing the world body as a source of succor, Cuba has invested heavily in its participation at Turtle Bay, staffing its mission with expert delegates and holding leadership positions on an assortment of U.N. bodies. But with Washington warming up to Havana, there is a chance to put these mechanisms to work in pushing for change in the island nation. High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid al-Hussein should seek to visit Cuba and open talks on access for U.N. special rapporteurs and, eventually, the establishment of a human rights assistance and reporting office in-country.

The normalization of relations has the potential to be a lifeline to long-suffering Cuban dissidents, journalists, editors, activists, and reformers. But large infusions of money and manpower from Washington-based democracy and aid organizations could run the risk of tainting genuine, indigenous efforts. They could trigger an intensified version of the regressive backlash witnessed from governments in Egypt, Russia, and elsewhere that systematically discredit local reformers as agents of Washington — an argument all too familiar in Havana. Assistance to Cuban dissidents and civil society groups should be broad-based — coming from governments and organizations in the region and around the world — and needs to put local leaders and activists in the driver’s seat of reform efforts.

Consistent, rigorous and objective reporting on conditions for human rights and individual freedoms will also be essential. With President Obama now having staked his legacy on a better future for Cuba, journalists, writers, and analysts need to do the spadework of monitoring whether the hoped-for progress manifests. In Myanmar, where Obama normalized relations and became the first U.S. president in more than 50 years to visit, early dramatic progress soon slowed. Getting the government to move beyond circumscribed reforms and freeing some political prisoners to actions that truly loosen the hold of the military on Burmese politics has thus far proven impossible. While censorship has been lifted and a rash of new media outlets now operate, the last few months have seen 10 Myanmar journalists and editors jailed and one killed in military custody. The global media and civil society have played a critical role in holding both Burmese President Thein Sein and Obama’s feet to the fire to ensure that the promise behind the handshakes, photo ops, and embassy ribbon-cutting does not turn out to have been mostly a mirage.

Pundits, exiles, and policymakers are already at war over whether President Obama’s bold move will herald the dawn of a new Cuba, or instead take away a powerful form of leverage Washington has exerted for more than five decades. The answer will depend on what happens after the champagne bottles are empty and the real work begins.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. She was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel