Of Rights and Wrongs in Cuba

United States must continue to press Castro government on human rights, says Atlantic Council’s Peter Schechter

The Obama administration must use the new opening in its relationship with Cuba to continue to press the government in Havana to respect human rights, says the Atlantic Council’s Peter Schechter.

Cuban dissidents were conspicuous by their absence from an August 14 flag-raising ceremony presided over by Secretary of State John Kerry at the US Embassy in Havana. US officials said that was because the event was a “government-to-government” one and that there was a shortage of space at the venue. Kerry will, however, meet dissidents at an event later in the day.

“Even though the United States has now normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba, that should in no way reduce the importance of making human rights a key issue of the relationship,” Schechter, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, said in an interview.

“The Cuban government may not want to hear it, but they need to hear it,” he added.

The United States and Cuba reopened embassies in each other’s capitals July 20 taking the biggest step toward ending half a century of animosity between the two countries.

Kerry is the first US Secretary of State to visit Cuba since 1945.

US President Barack Obama’s decision in June to take Cuba off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism cleared the path for the restoration of diplomatic ties that were severed in 1961.

Peter Schechter and Jason Marczak, Director and Deputy Director, respectively, of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, and Rachel DeLevie-Orey, an Assistant Director in the center, discussed this historic opening in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: Cuban dissidents have not been invited to the official flag-raising ceremony at the US Embassy in Havana. Where in the past US officials would engage with dissidents is this engagement likely to become more tricky as the United States seeks to build on its new opening with the Castro government?

Schechter: It is incumbent on the United States to balance, as it does in other countries, the imperative of continuing to raise issues of human rights, continuing to be a really clear voice in the defense of human rights, not only jailing and torture, but freedom of information, freedom of press, access to information, permission to travel, all of these issues.

Even though the United States has now normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba, that should in no way reduce the importance of making human rights a key issue of the relationship. The Cuban government may not want to hear it, but they need to hear it.

Q: Are the Cubans any more receptive to these messages?

Schechter: The Cubans have been historically non-receptive to what they call interventions into their sovereignty. When other countries bring up human rights issues, they fire back, “Well, Cubans have a much higher life expectancy than most citizens of developed countries. That’s a human right.” That is both true, and it’s also a way to deflect the criticism. But the criticism continues to be something that everybody who deals with Cuba and who cares about these issues needs to continue to bring up.

Q: Has the Castro government stepped up its crackdown on dissidents in recent months, as its critics claim?

Schechter: It’s important to view the treatment of dissidents in Cuba not from last week, but in the last several years. Under Fidel [Castro], prison terms for dissidents averaged five to fifteen years. Under Raúl [Castro], they’re down to one to five years. That’s one to five years too many, but it would be wise to recognize movement and encourage even more on this issue.

It is true that, in the past months, the Cuban government has made its presence felt, but most of those jailed have been overnight. I don’t mean to minimize that. Anytime a government is heavy handed on its citizens it deserves all the criticism in the world, but there is a difference between governments that jail and torture and murder, and governments that are harassing people. In the past, Cuba was in the former category—a government that did jail long-term, that did torture. Now most human rights organizations would feel that the human rights abuses are not as severe.

Q: What is the reason for this increased crackdown?

Schechter: There is a lot of speculation about the reasons as to why some of the heavy handedness of the Cuban government has increased. Some people ascribe it to more recalcitrant parts of the Communist party that want to make sure that nobody is seen to be buckling under or kneeling to the United States. Others say that it is a message to Cuban citizens that nothing is changing.

It is my hope that we can continue to both engage them as a government and that this policy will bring more tourists, more business, more engagement, more civil society, and make it everyday more difficult for the Cuban government to control events.

Q: In a recent interview Kerry disclosed that he has had conversations with the Cubans about improving ties with Venezuela. Do you expect any breakthrough on that front?

Schechter: There is no sign that Venezuela would be next. Over the summer [Counselor to the State Department] Tom Shannon traveled to Venezuela and on a second occasion met [Venezuelan] President [Nicolás] Maduro in a third country. Nobody knows exactly what was negotiated, but nothing much has changed.

Venezuela continues to be nearing a state of total basket case. Crime is completely out of control, inflation is rampant, stores are nearly empty, factories have difficulty producing because they cannot get the dollars to import products. Venezuela is crumbling. The elections slated for December are on target, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we have some type of declaration of emergency in which those elections are postponed.

Q: What are the practical implications of the reopening of the embassies in Washington and Havana? What can both countries now do that they couldn’t when they had Interests Sections in each other’s capitals?

DeLevie-Orey: They can host missions, specifically trade missions, which is something that an Interests Section cannot do. This will be very interesting as the United States considers opening up trade with Cuba.

Schechter: This has fewer practical implications than political and philosophical implications.

On a practical level, given that we still have a sanctions regime, we still have Helms-Burton, we still have prohibitions on financial exchanges, there isn’t going to be a massive difference that comes from opening up an embassy. But on a philosophical, historical, and political level it is an incredible change.

Marczak: On a practical level, all of a sudden you have to abide by the Vienna Convention, for example. That didn’t apply specifically to the Interests Section. The restrictions on diplomatic travel will also be much less severe than they were under the Interests Section.

Opening of an embassy will mean expansion of personnel, increasing the capacity of the embassy not only to engage with the host country’s government but, more importantly in our context, to engage with the Cuban people. 

Schechter: There used to be exchanges of coast guard, discussions about environmental issues, conservation of coral reefs, exchange of government officials to discuss what would happen in the case of oil spills. These used to be majestic moves between governments that had never spoken to each other. Now this is going to be just regular stuff. We will have meetings between the Cuban Minister of Transportation with our Department of Transportation on ferries, airlines, charter services and they’re going to meet openly and not in third countries.

The whole flora and fauna of meetings that used to be so dramatic because there would be only one every so often is now going to happen every day of every week in a very normal fashion.

Marczak: Going back to the philosophical level, the scarlet letter will be removed from the business cards and affiliations of Cuban diplomats in the United States. Among embassies in Washington there has been a constant apprehension about “Do we include the Cubans or not include in the Cubans in various discussions?”

The Cubans are not part of the OAS [Organization of American States], the IDB [Inter-American Development Bank], or the World Bank. We think it is critically important for Cuba to be part of these institutions, but in the absence of that this development puts Cuban diplomats on a similar level as diplomats from any other country.

Q: Some congressional critics have threatened to block funding for the embassy and obstruct the appointment of a US Ambassador. Can they succeed?

DeLevie-Orey: If they succeed in blocking an Ambassador, Obama can do a recess appointment, and he should.

As for funding, the embassy’s operations actually have funding through 2016 so we’re talking two years from now. Considering how much has changed in the political climate in Cuba in the last six months, I think what happens in 2016 will be anyone’s guess.

But that also means we will have eighteen months of a functioning embassy to prove the value of a functioning embassy, to prove that opening an embassy in Havana hasn’t resulted in the destruction of human kind that many opponents preach. We are just not going to see [the funding] blocked because there is not going to be enough political strength to back up defunding an embassy.

Congress blocking embassy funding would go completely against the tide of the American people. As we showed in our poll last year and in many polls since then have shown, restoring diplomatic relations is clearly a position supported by the American people. Also what we have seen in Congress is that the Cuba discussions are less and less dominated by the hardliners who are increasingly marginalized.

If we don’t have an Ambassador the President should make a recess appointment. But we also have many embassies around the world that function rather well without an ambassador, including our embassy in Peru that went without an Ambassador for a whole year.

Defunding the US Embassy in Cuba would actually hurt the American people. One of the main things an embassy does is it provides consular services to its own people traveling in that country. By taking away funding from a US Embassy we are taking away its ability to provide services to the increasing number of Americans who are traveling to Cuba.

Q: Now that diplomatic relations have been restored what are the issues the Obama and Castro administrations want to address next in order of priority? You’ve got the embargo, the status of Guantanamo Bay…

Schechter: There are a plethora of issues that remain to be discussed and resolved between the two governments. You have mentioned a couple, but as important as those are there is the economic reintegration of Cuba, issues having to do with the reparations of nationalized properties.  There are also issues having to do with the flow of tourism.

And there is the issue of human rights that continues to be highly problematic in Cuba. Cuba aspires to be like Vietnam with a very closed political system and a very open economy. But Cuba is a Latin American nation geographically and mentally in the West. Cubans are not going to be satisfied with an economic opening alone.

Marczak: Some issues are US issues and some are Cuban issues. Investment, trade, and nationalized property are all joint issues. But things like human rights are not something the Cubans wants to talk about. It is critical for our agenda. The overall rapprochement with Cuba is a means to be able to open more opportunities for the Cuban people.

There are also issues for the Cubans, too. The Cubans are going to want to have the future of Guantanamo be on their agenda.  

Like any negotiation, this is a slow process. We have to prioritize issues of mutual interest but at the same time making sure that our individual interests as a country do not get lost. While we talk about trade and investment we have to always be doing this in the context of what will help Cuban people.

DeLevie-Orey: After the December 17 announcement [by President Obama], a lot of people said the President has done everything he can and now it is up to Congress. When it comes to banner headline news that is true, but there are still things that the President can do to progress this relationship. Those should be prioritized because they can, for obvious reasons, move through more swiftly. So that’s appointing an Ambassador, making it easier for the international financial institutions to begin talking to Cuba.

There is a lot of [US] legislation that prevents the US representation in these institutions from voting in favor of assistance to Cuba. There is also language that instructs the withdrawal of US funds [from these institutions]. But there are ways to work around this. President Obama should make clear that these institutions are welcome to engage with Cuba because they are rightfully terrified right now.

Q: A Cuban foreign ministry official was recently quoted as saying the Castro government believes the US is still interested in regime change in Cuba. He cited the State Department’s democracy program to substantiate his claim. Should the Obama administration consider amending this program?

Schechter: Both countries need to change the chip of fifty years of accusations. The United States had a wrong-headed and incorrect policy in place for five decades.  But it is now changed. President Obama’s normalization and reopening of embassies means that our Ambassador will soon present credentials to the Cuban President. That is as explicit a recognition of the regime as I can possibly imagine.

To me, the policy of regime change is over, but that doesn’t mean that Cuba isn’t a country that would benefit from learning more about how to have a more open civil society, how to move towards greater press freedoms, how to open up democracy, how to improve local government so that it is more responsive to the needs of neighborhoods as opposed to the needs of the party.

DeLevie-Orey: We have programs to support democracy in countries around the world, which are not democracies…

Schechter: And with whom we have excellent relations. For better or worse a country’s democratic credentials, except for Cuba, have not until now been a definition of whether we have good relations with that country or not.

Marczak: Our democracy programs have failed in Cuba and we need to seriously rethink them. Rather than the money going to helping Cuban civil society, most of the money [from US democracy programs] goes to Miami groups that claim to have strong ties to Cuban civil society. Most of that money never even leaves Miami.

If we are going to continue with democracy programs in Cuba we are going to have to rethink them and do them like we do other democracy programs and actually have the money going to help groups in Cuba that promote democracy, not to helping groups in Miami.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

* This blog post has been updated.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen, Jason Marczak, and Peter Schechter

Image: Yavida, 17, poses while wearing a dress with the colors of the US flag on a street in Havana, Cuba, August 4. (Reuters/Enrique de la Osa)