Why Obama’s Cuba Trip Is the Perfect Chance to Talk About Human Rights

Obama is right to engage with Cuba — as long as he doesn't leave human rights behind.

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When President Barack Obama travels to Cuba later this month, more will be at stake than just the wisdom of his executive actions to loosen the U.S. embargo in December 2014. In his first inaugural address, Obama had pledged a change from the Manichean, black-or-white foreign policy of George W. Bush, promising to extend a hand to regimes that were willing to “unclench their fist.” His opening to Cuba — if it works — could be one of this policy’s most convincing successes.

But there’s a problem. In the 14 months since Obama’s executive actions permitted greater U.S. personal and commercial contact with the socialist island, the autocratic Cuban regime has failed to meaningfully improve its human rights record.

According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an unofficial human rights group, in January alone, Cuban officials temporarily detained 1,414 independent activists, subjecting 56 of them to physical abuse. Meanwhile, the regime has actually tightened its already harsh controls on freedom of expression and freedom of association. Even the one possible concession from the Cubans, allowing a handful of former political prisoners one trip outside the country, was, at best, a token gesture, and likely made with the hope that they wouldn’t come back. In short, the president is heading to a country that has shown little inclination to unclench its fist.

A number of hardline groups, as well as Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, are correspondingly denouncing the President’s trip to Cuba as yet another example of his naive, spineless, concede-everything foreign policy. But Obama’s visit doesn’t have to be a weak-kneed concession to a human rights-violating regime — if the President plays it right.

Indeed, traveling to Cuba just to celebrate the recently inaugurated U.S. embassy and sit next to Raul Castro for nine innings of baseball would be an unconscionable cave to the Cuban government. Instead, the president can and should use his trip as an opportunity to show that his shift toward engagement can build a foundation for human rights, inspire average Cuban citizens (and not just those that have courageously battled for human rights for decades), and focus attention on the government’s unpopular political controls and state-centered economy. 

The White House’s softening of the embargo was never intended as a tit-for-tat exchange for human rights concessions from the Castros. The Cuban regime has always reacted aggressively and unproductively to any public criticism of its abysmal human rights record. As a result, American scolding has never done much good.

In fact, while hardline supporters of the U.S. embargo relish in pointing out the ongoing detentions, the worst recent case of repression came in March 2003, precisely when the embargo was at its tightest and the U.S. envoy to Cuba the most outspoken about human rights. In what became known as the Black Spring, Cuban government agents rounded up 75 political opponents (including 29 journalists) and summarily sentenced them to jail terms of up to 28 years. (They were released seven years later after the Catholic Church interceded.)

Obama’s loosening of the embargo and his restoration of diplomatic ties between the two countries is an attempt to take a different tack. It is based on a long-term bet that more communication, contact, exchange, and even commerce between Cubans and Americans will help citizens build their economic and political independence from a state that, for 50 years, controlled nearly every aspect of their lives.

History is on the president’s side. Democratic transitions the world over have always benefitted from more communication and contact, not less. The East German citizens that breached the Berlin Wall and the Soviet citizens that ended the Cold War were responding to aspirations spawned from what they heard and learned about the outside world through travel, tourism, and trade — which are all prohibited by current U.S. law. Fortunately, White House lawyers found a way around some of the embargo’s restrictions through President Obama’s executive authority.

Criticism of Obama’s policy changes and his trip is, therefore, both ahistorical and premature. Once in Havana, President Obama will be greeted by throngs of Cuban citizens celebrating his visit and the changes it represents. The embargo has never been popular on the island, and despite the United States’ punitive policy toward the regime — not to mention some unsavory past efforts to remove Fidel Castro from power — Cubans retain very strong, positive feelings toward U.S. citizens and American culture. And with the island’s strong African roots, the first black U.S. president will be treated as a rock star.

What the Cuban regime publicly denies President Obama — a sudden public embrace of human rights or a sudden, unexpected concession to dissidents — the president can encourage through subtle actions that will have a much more lasting impact. A public meeting with political dissidents in which he speaks of the importance of free expression, an exclusive one-on-one interview with an independent, non-sanctioned journalist, or a public speech in which he eloquently argues that Cubans and Americans share common values would all do more good for the cause of freedom than doubling down on the embargo and isolating the island and its people.

There could be embarrassing moments. President Raul Castro may well have a go at lecturing President Obama on Washington’s own human rights problems (think Guantanamo Bay). Cuban officials will almost certainly dismiss any U.S. chiding as yanqui arrogance. State security officials may try to crack down on independent protesters as the president’s motorcade passes by, or immediately after he departs the island.

But it will still be worth it. With over 2 million Cuban-Americans living in the U.S. — and two thirds of them living just across the Florida Straits — the two countries remain geographically, culturally, and personally close. Extending a hand to Cuba is just the way to bring a breath of hope and solidarity to the country’s long-suffering citizens — even if the government keeps its fist firmly clenched. It all depends on President Obama’s willingness to break the formal diplomatic script that the Cuban government no doubt wants him to follow.

In the photo, Cubans hold U.S. and Cuban flags outside the U.S. Embassy in Havana on August 14, 2015, during Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit.

Photo credit: ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images

Christopher Sabatini is a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, the executive director of Global Americans, and a nonresident fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute. Twitter: @ChrisSabatini

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