‘You can’t have your cake and eat it too.’ American diplomats and policy makers would do well to remember this bit of practical wisdom when dealing with Cuba. Unfortunately, it seems Washington is once again trying to have it both ways. While the U.S. has awarded the Cuban government with increased diplomatic recognition and eased certain travel restrictions, the Cuban regime hasn’t even done all of what was requested by the US in return to improve the lives of everyday Cubans and of its detainees in particular. True, Cuba has begun to free some of the 53 prisoners promised freedom according to the U.S. deal. But illegal detentions and harassment of dissidents are still the order of the day in the island; the deal does nothing to ultimately reform the overall structure of oppression currently in place in Cuba.
The online Human Rights Watch 2015 World Report on Cuba says that “government authorities harass, assault, and imprison human rights defenders who attempt to document abuses” of the government. The chapter adds that “prisons are overcrowded, and unhygienic and unhealthy conditions lead to extensive malnutrition and illness.
Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International, has written that “…we have been receiving incredibly worrying reports about a rise in harassment and short-term detentions of dissidents throughout 2014 which has continued in recent weeks. Prisoner releases will be no more than a smokescreen if they are not accompanied by expanded space for the free and peaceful expression of all opinions and other freedoms in Cuba.” And according to the Cuban Observatory for Human Rights the amount of illegal detentions rose to over a hundred cases in January 2015 alone. This conforms with the reports from the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a local Human Rights group considered illegal by Castro’s regime.
Isn’t the US demanding way too little from Cuba’s dictatorship? The reputation of the United States as a worldwide promoter of human rights is lessened by its feckless dealing with an authoritarian regime. As long as we both maintain the embargo and continue to recognize the Cuban regime diplomatically, we are working against ourselves, sending mixed messages to an abusive dictator. Worst of all, the current deal broadcasts a clear signal that pro-democracy dissidents in Cuba are on their own—the deal does next to nothing to ensure that future dissidents will not face jail time or harassment or that the broader system of communist repression and control comes to an end. In our attempt to ‘have our cake and eat it too’ we have wound up with a confused and confusing policy that tries to make both peaceful overtures and firm demands of an unresponsive government. But our demands contain no real teeth, a fact the Castro regime has already recognized by pushing from even more concessions from the US (including handing over Guantanamo Bay prison and removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism). America gains strategic advantage and moral credibility by its commitment to human rights and its opposition to communism—our recent actions towards Cuba have tragically undermined these advantages.