U.S. Policy Implications of State Department’s Report on Cuban Human Rights

A prior post reviewed the U.S. State Department’s just-released 2013 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices while another post discussed its chapter on Cuba. Now we look at the implications of that report for U.S. policies regarding Cuba.

Some people assert that the negative aspects of Cuban human rights justify continuing U.S. hostility toward the island. They see the Cuban glass of human rights at least half empty. Notable among them is U.S. Representative Mario Díaz-Balart, a Cuban-American and a Republican Congressman from Miami, who remains a stalwart powerful defender of the embargo and other anti-Cuba policies of the U.S.

Others, including this blogger, reach the opposite conclusion based, in part, on the belief that the Cuban glass of human rights is half full.

Rev. Raul Suarez
Rev. Raul Suarez

As Rev. Raúl Suárez put it at the February 27th briefing for the U.S. Congress, “Cuba has many problems but Cuba isn’t hell . . . . We have many good things that have been achieved [but] . . . Cuba is not the Kingdom of God.” Suárez added, “God . . . wants us [Cubans and Americans] to live like brothers and sisters.”[1]

Indeed, the humility expressed by Rev. Suárez should lead the U.S. to the same conclusion. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said last month on release of the Human Rights Reports, “from our own nation’s journey, we know that [human rights] is a work in progress. Slavery was written into our Constitution before it was written out. And we know that the struggle for equal rights, for women, for others – for LGBT community and others – is an ongoing struggle.” Secretary Kerry admitted that we  “know that we’re not perfect. We don’t speak with any arrogance whatsoever, but with a concern for the human condition.”

In evaluating Cuba’s mixed human rights record and deciding on U.S. policies regarding that country, that same humility should cause we in the U.S. to remember the U.S. immense superiority in economies and military might and the long-standing U.S. actions of hostility towards Cuba, including the following:

  • the U.S. usurpation of Cuba’s war for independence from Spain in the late 19th Century (what we in the U.S. call the “Spanish-American War“);
  • the U.S.’ making Cuba a de facto U.S. protectorate in the early 20th Century;
  • the U.S. support for the invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in 1961;
  • the U.S. threats of military action against Cuba during the pressured Cuban missile crisis of 1962;
  • the CIA’s hatching several plots to assassinate Fidel Castro when he was Cuba’s President;
  • the U.S. conduct of an embargo of Cuba over the last 50-plus years; and
  •  the U.S. Government’s Commission on Assistance for a Free Cuba setting forth what amounted to a U.S. blueprint for taking over Cuba.

This history provides Cuba with many legitimate reasons to be afraid of the U.S. It, therefore, is understandable why Cuba has harshly treated what we call “dissidents” and what Cuba fears are or could be supporters of a U.S. takeover.

And we in the U.S. should know from our own history since 9/11 that societies and governments tend to clamp down on civil liberties when they fear outside interference or attacks.

Cuba’s regrettable lapses on human rights, though perhaps understandable in context, should not be a reason for continued U.S. hostility toward the island.

Therefore, as a prior post argued, improving Cuban human rights should be one of many items on an agenda for a comprehensive, mutually respectful negotiation between the two countries. The objectives of such a negotiation, in my opinion, should be restoration of full diplomatic relations; ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba;[2] terminating the unjustified U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism;” [3] terminating the one-sided U.S. lease of Guantanamo Bay; and compensating owners for expropriation of property on the island as part of the Cuban Revolution.[4]

Such a negotiation, in my opinion, is in the interest of the U.S. Cuba poses no threat to the U.S. Our businesses and farmers would benefit economically from open relations with Cuba. Normalizing our relations with the island would be seen by most people in the world, especially Latin America, as a sign that the U.S. is a mature, rational country.

These thoughts were echoed by the Cuban religious leaders who held a U.S. congressional briefing on February 27th. Joined by the President and CEO of Church World Service, [5] they reaffirmed their long-held opposition to the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

They also called “for the U.S. government to end the ban that prevents U.S. citizens from visiting Cuba and seeing the island for themselves; to take Cuba off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism . . . ; and for the American government to open up trade and commerce in ways that support the small enterprises, cooperatives, and non-profits that are emerging on the island. Finally, the U.S. and Cuban governments ought to open a high level dialogue between our countries to normalize relations and discuss differences in ways that honor and respect the dignity of both nations.”

Before the commencement of such complicated negotiations, the U.S. President should commute the sentences of three of the Cuban Five to the 15-plus years they already have spent in U.S. jails and prisons and let them return to their home country. Similarly Cuba should commute the sentence of U.S. citizen Alan Gross to the time he already has spent in Cuban prison and allow him to return to the U.S.

Given the long period of hostility between the two countries and the apparent lack of movement toward negotiations, I believe that the assistance of a neutral third-party mediator would be helpful to both countries. Such a mediator, in my opinion, should be someone who is bilingual in English and Spanish with experience as an international mediator, who is in fact and perceived to be neutral and who has the time (and staff?) to make a major commitment to this process.

Such a mediator indeed could and should step forward and invite representatives of both countries to participate in mediated negotiations, rather than wait on them to agree on such a process.

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[1] Suárez is a Baptist pastor and the founder and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Havana. When I visited the Center in 2007, Rev. Suárez told our group that he had founded the Center because he thought King’s philosophy of non-violence and social justice was relevant to Cuba, especially to Afro-Cubans. He also said that in 1984 he and other religious leaders met with then President Fidel Castro to protest the government’s endorsement of atheism (or scientific materialism) as limiting the space for churches, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba abandoned that endorsement and provided more space for churches to participate in issues facing the island.

[2] Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter also call for ending the U.S. embargo. So too does world opinion as evidenced by the U.N. General Assembly’s passing resolutions condemning the embargo for the last 22 years. The last such resolution in October 2013 was passed 188 to 2 with only the U.S. and Israel voting against it.  A prior post to this blog also has argued for ending the embargo and summarized the 2011 General Assembly resolution against the embargo.

[3] This blog has reviewed the State Department’s asserted rationale for the “State Sponsor of Terrorism” designation and called it ridiculous for 2010, 2011 and 2012 and absurd for 2013. This blog also noted Cuba’s adoption of legislation against money laundering and terrorism financing and thereby negating one of the purported reasons for the designation.

[4] In a letter to President Obama that was reproduced in this blog, I called for the U.S. to terminate the Guantanamo Bay lease and for Cuba to compensate property owners for expropriating their property. A comprehensive review of this lease is found in Michael J. Strauss’ The Leasing of Guantanamo Bay.

[5] Church World Service was founded in 1946 with this mission: “Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort the aged, shelter the homeless.” It now has 37 Protestant member communions all over the world.

U.S. State Department’s Latest Report on Cuban Human Rights

U.S. Flag
U.S. Flag

The U.S. State Department’s just-released 2013 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’ chapter on Cuba needs analysis.[1]

The Report’s Negative Comments about Cuban Human Rights

The Executive Summary of its chapter on Cuba has a strongly negative tone. It states the following:

  • “Cuba is an authoritarian state led by Raul Castro, who is president of the council of state and council of ministers, Communist Party (CP) first secretary, and commander in chief of security forces. The constitution recognizes the CP as the only legal party and ‘the superior leading force of society and of the state.’ A CP candidacy commission preapproved all candidates for the February uncontested National Assembly elections, which were neither free nor fair. The national leadership that included members of the military maintained effective control over the security forces, which committed human rights abuses against civil rights activists and other citizens alike.
  • In January the government largely dropped travel restrictions that prevented citizens from leaving the island, but these reforms were not universally applied, and authorities denied passport requests for certain opposition figures or harassed them upon their return to the country.
  • The principal human rights abuses were abridgement of the right of citizens to change the government and the use of government threats, extrajudicial physical violence, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly.
  • The following additional abuses continued: harsh prison conditions, arbitrary arrest, selective prosecution, and denial of fair trial. [2] Authorities interfered with privacy, engaging in pervasive monitoring of private communications. The government did not respect freedom of speech and press, severely restricted internet access and maintained a monopoly on media outlets, circumscribed academic freedom, and maintained significant restrictions on the ability of religious groups to meet and worship. The government refused to recognize independent human rights groups or permit them to function legally. In addition, the government continued to prevent workers from forming independent unions and otherwise exercising their labor rights.
  • Most human rights abuses were official acts committed at the direction of the government. Impunity for the perpetrators remained widespread.”

The Report’s Positive Comments about Cuban Human Rights

This Executive Summary paints a bleak picture of Cuban human rights, and I have no doubt that many of these points are legitimate. But I still believe that it overstates the negatives.

Indeed, the Executive Summary failed to acknowledge that the Report itself stated there were “no reports that the [Cuban] government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings . . . [or] politically motivated disappearances.”

In addition, the Report itself stated in Cuba that there was “no societal pattern of child abuse;” that the government operated family counseling centers; that the government “continued to carry out media campaigns” against domestic violence; that the government “actively promoted racial integration and inclusiveness;” that a government resolution “accords persons with disabilities the right to equal employment opportunities and equal pay for equal work;” and that there was no “discrimination officially reported or permitted based on sexual orientation” accentuated by President Castro’s daughter’s promotion of LGBT rights.

With respect to Cuba’s prisoners and pretrial detainees, the Report conceded that they “had access to visitors;” that many “were able to communicate information about their living conditions through telephone calls to human rights observers and reports to family members;” that they “could practice limited religious observance;” and that “the Catholic Church and the Cuban Council of Churches reported access to prisoners during the year, with services offered in prisons and detention centers in most if not all provinces.”

On Cuban religious freedom more generally, the Report merely incorporated by reference the section on Cuba in the Department’s most recent International Religious Freedom Report that this blog previously criticized as understating the extent of religious freedom on the island.[3]

Moreover, the new overall Human Rights Report admits that “religious groups reported greater latitude to express their opinions during sermons and at religious gatherings than in the past;” that “[r]eligious leaders in some cases criticized the government, its policies, and even the country’s leadership without reprisals;” that the “Catholic Church operated a cultural center in Havana that hosted debates featuring participants voicing different opinions about the country’s future, at which well-known dissidents were allowed to participate;” and that the “Catholic Church published two periodicals that sometimes included criticism of official social and economic policies . . . [and] a pastoral letter advocating for political and economic reforms and greater rights for citizens.”

The new overall Report also says that the “Catholic Church received permission to broadcast Christmas and Easter messages on state-run television stations . . . [while] the Council of Churches, the government-recognized Protestant umbrella organization, was authorized to host a monthly 20-minute radio broadcast;” that religious “groups reported the ability to gather in large numbers without registering or facing sanctions;” and that “[r]ecognized churches, [and] the Roman Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas . . . were . . . legally permitted to function outside the formal structure of the state, the [Communist Party], and government-organized organizations.” In addition, there were “no reports of anti-Semitic acts.”

Finally the Report concedes that the Cuban constitution and other laws prohibit abusive treatment of detainees and prisoners and provide alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders and juveniles as well as rights to seek redress for improper prison conditions and treatment. Cuban law, the Report said, also specifies reasonable procedures for investigations and prosecutions of alleged crimes.

Conclusion

Cuba’s regrettable lapses on human rights, though perhaps understandable in context, should not be a reason for continued U.S. hostility toward the island. A subsequent post will examine what this blogger sees as the implications of this report for U.S. policies regarding Cuba.


[1] A prior post reviewed the Department’s overall summary of global human rights in 2013.

[2] The most recent annual report (May 2013) from Amnesty International makes similar allegations about Cuba as did Human Rights Watch’s April 2013 submission to the U.N. Human Rights Council regarding its Universal Periodic Review of Cuba.

[3] This blog criticized the prior reports on Cuban religious freedom by the State Department and by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. In addition, another post reviewed positive comments on religious freedom from religious leaders with direct experience on the island. Similar points were made on February 27th, 2014, by six Cuban Protestant Christian leaders at a congressional briefing hosted by U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (Republican of Arizona) and Representative Jim McGovern (Democrat of Massachusetts). In response, a strong supporter of current U.S. policies regarding Cuba launched an unwarranted ad hominem attack on these leaders.

 

Cuban Religious Freedom (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom)

We have provided a general overview of the latest international religious freedom reports from the U.S. Department of State and from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and another post analyzed the State Department’s report on that freedom in Cuba.[1] Now we contrast and compare the Commission’s shorter and less detailed report on that subject for Cuba.[2]

Positive Aspects of Religious Freedom in Cuba

The report had a few good things to say about religious freedom in Cuba.

First, it did not include Cuba in its list of “countries of particular concern” (CPC), i.e.,  those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom.

Second, it recognized that “[p]ositive developments for the Catholic Church and major registered Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, continued over the last year.” (Emphasis added.)

The Commission endorsed the State Department reports “that religious communities were given greater freedom to discuss politically sensitive issues. Catholic and Protestant Sunday masses were held in more prisons throughout the island. Religious denominations continued to report increased opportunities to conduct some humanitarian and charity work, receive contributions from co-religionists outside Cuba, and obtain Bibles and other religious materials. Small, local processions continued to occur in the provinces.”

The Commission also stated that the Cuban government granted the Cuban Council of Churches time for periodic broadcasts early Sunday mornings, and Cuba’s Roman Catholic Cardinal read Christmas and Easter messages on state-run stations. Relations between the Catholic Church and Cuban government continued to improve,” marked by Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba.

Negative Aspects of Religious Freedom in Cuba

The report also commented on what it saw as negative aspects of religious freedom in Cuba.

Some of the criticisms echo the State Department’s report regarding the Cuban government’s system for registering religious groups, limiting certain activities to such registered groups, restricting permits for construction or repair of religious buildings, limiting access to state media and denying permission for religious processions outside religious buildings. The Commission, however, fails to mention the Department’s qualifications that these purported restrictions of religious freedom are not enforced in practice.

The Commission mentions the Cuban government’s arrest and detention of human rights/democracy activists that prevented them from attending church services, as did the Department’s report. As noted in my prior post, however, these arrests and detentions, in my opinion, are blots on Cuba’s general human rights record, not that for its religious freedom.

Another negative, according to the Commission, are the alleged Cuban government’s arrests and beatings on four occasions of evangelical pastors and the alleged targeting of the Apostolic Reformation and Western Baptist communities. We, however, do not know all the facts of these alleged events, and even if true as stated by the Commission, they do not, in my opinion, justify the Commission’s overall evaluation of Cuban religious freedom.[3]

That overall evaluation includes Cuba as one of eight countries on the Commission’s “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold, but require close monitoring.” According to the Commission, the “Watch List provides advance warning of negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom, thereby providing policymakers with the opportunity to engage early and increasing the likelihood of preventing or diminishing the violations.”

Cuba has been on this Watch List since 2004.[4] Its inclusion yet again, in my opinion, is due to sheer long-term blinders on U.S. perceptions of Cuba, not to an objective analysis of the facts.

Recommendations for U.S. Policy 

In accordance with its authorizing statute,[5] the Commission made the following recommendations for U.S. policy with respect to Cuban religious freedom:

  • press the Cuban government to “stop arrests and harassment of clergy and religious leaders;  cease interference with religious activities and the internal affairs of religious communities; allow unregistered religious groups to operate freely and legally; revise government policies that restrict religious services in homes or on other personal property; and hold accountable police and other security personnel for actions that violate the human rights of non-violent religious practitioners;”
  • “use appropriated funds to advance Internet freedom and protect Cuban activists from harassment and arrest by supporting the development of new technologies, while also immediately distributing proven and field-tested programs to counter censorship;”
  • “increase the number of visas issued to Cuban religious leaders from both registered and unregistered religious communities to travel to the United States to interact with co-religionists;” and
  • “encourage international partners, including key Latin American and European countries and regional blocks, to ensure that violations of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights are part of all formal and informal multilateral or bilateral discussions with Cuba.”

I note first that if Cuba properly were excluded from the Watch List, there would be no basis for the Commission’s making any recommendations with respect to Cuba.

With respect to the recommendations themselves, the first one seems like an excessive concern with formalities since in practice these restrictions are not enforced. Has the U.S. updated all of its statutes and regulations to conform them to what happens in the real world?

The third recommendation should be noncontroversial, and I agree the U.S. should grant tourist visas for Cuban religious representatives to visit the U.S.

I also have no problem with the fourth recommendation, but believe that most other countries and regional blocks would not see the alleged violations of freedom of religion or belief that the Commission sees.

The second recommendation, however, raises significant problems and is objectionable.

It is difficult to know exactly what is meant by recommending the U.S. use its funds to advance Internet freedom and protect Cuban activists, to develop new technologies and to distribute proven and field-tested programs to counter censorship.

To me, it sounds like a recommendation for surreptitious efforts at regime change. Remember that the U.S. in 1961 supported an armed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, that the U.S. through the CIA had plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, that the U.S. for over 50 years has had an embargo of Cuba and that the George W. Bush Administration had a Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba that produced a de facto U.S. plan for such a regime change.

Another, and more powerful, reason for being at least skeptical of this second recommendation is the case of Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen, who is now in Cuban prison after conviction in 2009 for–as the Cubans see it– being part of a “subversive project of the U.S. government that aimed to destroy the Revolution through the use of communication systems out of the control of authorities.” As an employee of an USAID contractor, Mr. Gross went to Cuba on multiple occasions purportedly to establish wireless networks and Internet connections for non-dissident Cuban Jewish communities and to deliver certain communications equipment to Cubans for that purpose.

In 2012 Mr. Gross and his wife sued USAID and the contractor for allegedly failing to give him better information and training for his dangerous work, and this month (May 2013) the Grosses and the contractor reached a settlement for dismissal of the case against the corporation in exchange for an undisclosed monetary payment by the contractor.

In short, this second recommendation is not designed to improve religious freedom in Cuba.

Conclusion

The State Department’s more balanced recent report on Cuban religious freedom, in my opinion, is better grounded in reality than the Commission’s. While I believe the U.S. should encourage and promote religious freedom around the world, including Cuba, the recommendations by the Commission are unjustified and counterproductive and evidence the same bias against Cuba that we see in other aspects of U.S. policy towards Cuba.[6]


[1] The prior post also reviewed the religious makeup of the Cuban people and many other details on the subject that will not be repeated here.

[2] Prior posts examined the Commission reports for Cuba for 2010 and 2011(comment to prior post). A subsequent post will discuss the unusual structure of the Commission.

[3] The Commission’s heavy emphasis on the relatively few alleged wrongs against evangelical pastors and its ignoring the positive developments in religious freedom for “registered” religious groups like the Roman Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Methodists demonstrate a totally inappropriate and unjustified bias in a purported nonpartisan U.S. agency of our federal government. Such a bias is not new. It also was present in the George W. Bush Administration’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which regarded unnamed evangelical Christian groups as the only “authentically independent” religious groups that could be used by the U.S. to build a “free” Cuba.  The Cuban Council of Churches, on the other hand, was seen by this U.S. commission as “taken over by the Castro regime in the early 1960s and used as a means to control the Protestant churches” and, therefore, was not to be used by the U.S.

[4]  The other seven countries on the Commission’s Watch List are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia.

[5]  That statute charges the Commission with the responsibility of “making  . . . policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress with respect to [Cuban] religious freedom.” (International Religious Freedom Act of 1988, § 202(a)(2); id. § 202(b); id. § 202(c).