Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Doing our part for Cuban socialism

In the New York Review of Books, Nik Steinberg and Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch have written an interesting essay on the human rights situation in Cuba and proposing a new international policy to press for human rights improvements in Cuba, to replace the U.S. embargo.
An excerpt:
“Invoking national sovereignty may be the most common tactic used by governments around the globe—and across the political spectrum—to counter criticism of their abusive practices. It is the international equivalent of the ‘states’ rights’ claim that segregationists in the US South used for years to defend their racist laws and policies. The aim is to shift the focus of public concern from the rights of abuse victims to the rights (real and imagined) of the states that abuse them.
“What sets the Castro government apart from most others that employ this tactic is the fact that Cuba has indeed, for five decades, faced an explicit threat to its national sovereignty—coming from the United States, a superpower ninety miles off its shores. In the 1960s, the threat took the form of covert military action, including the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and multiple botched assassination attempts. It continues in the form of the economic embargo established by President Eisenhower in 1960, later expanded by President Kennedy, and eventually locked in place by the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act. Also known as ‘Helms-Burton,’ the law prohibits the president from lifting trade restrictions until Cuba has legalized political activity and made a commitment to free and fair elections. It also prohibits lifting the embargo as long as Fidel and Raúl Castro remain in office. In other words, it requires that Cubans be free to choose their leaders, but bars them from choosing the Castros. It is thus a program to promote not only democracy but also regime change.”
I don’t agree that the embargo in and of itself threatens Cuban sovereignty; it’s an expression of American sovereignty to decide not to trade with another country. In this case it’s Cuba’s commercial options, not its sovereignty, that are abridged.
But the part about Helms-Burton is actually little worse than described. The Helms-Burton law says that even if Cuba were to hold an election under perfect conditions, it would not result in a “democratically elected” government if that government were to “include Fidel Castro or Raul Castro.” So it seeks a democracy in Cuba that makes a mockery of our own definition of democracy.
One could write this off as old history – who can remember 1996, after all? – but the Helms-Burton law lives on in many ways.
One is in the political message that it continues to send, as Steinberg and Wilkinson describe.
Another is in the program that sent USAID contractor Alan Gross to Cuba, authorized by Helms-Burton’s Section 109. It’s a democracy promotion program, but if Cubans fully read the law that authorizes it, it isn’t surprising that they would see things otherwise. Nor is it surprising that Cubans such as Yoani Sanchez would express concern for Cuba’s sovereignty (see this discussion by Ted Henken of her views and those of her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, some expressed in connection with the Bush Administration’s transition commission).
What is surprising is that the Obama Administration keeps the USAID program going, using a regime-change framework to attempt to carry out programs that it seems to conceive as mainly humanitarian.


Anonymous said...

Id be interested to know if Human Rights Watch, an extremely reputable organization, has called for the exact same level of international sanctions against other regimes that abuse human rights, worse than Cuba for less justification, such as Egypt?

Anonymous said...

This is one of the more articulate descriptions of the Cuban reality.



Zacaman said...

Phil, you wrote: "I don’t agree that the embargo in and of itself threatens Cuban sovereignty; it’s an expression of American sovereignty to decide not to trade with another country."

I respectfully disagree - this is an issue that is misinterpreted (at best) and misrepresented (at worst) by those who should know better. The reason Cubans refer to it as "el bloqueo" - the blockade - is because Helms-Burton is extraterritorial in nature. Review the news coverage from Canada and Europe in 1996. Canada passed legislation in an attempt to counteract the Act's effecst on Canadian businesses, such as Sherrit, a mining company with extensive holdings in Cuba, and whose entire executive faces arrest and imprisonment if they attempt to enter the U.S. There is a huge deterrent to third-countries doing business with Cuba for this reason, not to mention the added commercial barriers posed by the "no ships that dock in Cuba may dock at US ports for a period of six months". That provision has nothing to do with "not trading" between the US and Cuba, and adds millions of dollars annually to Cuba's shipping costs, since vessels must make special trips to Cuba rather than simply include them on the cross-Atlantic itinerary.

Allowing embargo apologists to continue to diminish its impact does a disservice to the effort to understand the true nature of Cuba's economic challenges.