On January 12, U.S. Representatives (Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), who is the Chair of the House’s Cuba Working Group, and Kathy Castor (Dem., FL) introduced a bill (H.R. 442)– the Cuba Trade Act—“to lift the Cuba embargo. This . . . [bill] would allow businesses in the private sector to trade freely with Cuba, while prohibiting taxpayer funds to be used on promotion or development of this new market.” (This bill was first introduced in the prior Congress.)
Representative Emmer said, “Over the past two years, the [U.S.] has taken steps away from a failed policy of isolation and towards normalizing relations with our neighbor just 90 miles off our Florida coast. In the 115th Congress we have a real opportunity to continue these efforts to strengthen our national security, open new markets, and empower the Cuban people with human rights and real economic reforms. It is time for the halls of Congress to reflect the views of more than 70% of the American people who favor ending the trade embargo, and we look forward to doing just that.”
Representative Castor issued a similar statement. She said, “The Cuba Trade Act would lift the outdated economic embargo, continue the normalization process and open new business opportunities to benefit the people of the United States and Cuba. My neighbors, business leaders, faith leaders and others in the Tampa community have been at the forefront of positive change in America’s relationship with the Cuban people. We must turn the page on the Cold War policies of the past and build new bridges for jobs and economic opportunities for both nations and continued improvements in human rights for the Cuban people.”
The bill has four Republican cosponsors (Mark Sanford (SC), Justin Amash (MI), “Rick” Crawford (AR) and Ted Poe (TX)) and four Democrat cosponsors (Donald Beaver (VA), Barbara Lee (CA), Mark Pocan (WI) and Jim McGovern (MA)).
On August 14, 2015, the U.S. formally opened its Embassy in Havana, Cuba with the raising of the American flag and a program featuring remarks by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that were telecast and broadcast live throughout the island. Thus, his message, in one sense, was directed to the Cuban people, and the words in bold in the following remarks were especially addressed to them.
Kerry started by recognizing that “this is truly a memorable occasion – a day for pushing aside old barriers and exploring new possibilities” and that Presidents Obama and Castro had made “a courageous decision to stop being the prisoners of history and to focus on the opportunities of today and tomorrow.”
The U.S. needs to recognize that “U.S. policy is not the anvil on which Cuba’s future will be forged. Decades of good intentions aside, the policies of the past have not led to a democratic transition in Cuba. It would be equally unrealistic to expect normalizing relations to have, in a short term, a transformational impact. After all, Cuba’s future is for Cubans to shape. Responsibility for the nature and quality of governance and accountability rests, as it should, not with any outside entity; but solely within the citizens of this country.”
“But the leaders in Havana – and the Cuban people – should also know that the United States will always remain a champion of democratic principles and reforms. . . .[We] will continue to urge the Cuban Government to fulfill its obligations under the UN and inter-American human rights covenants – obligations shared by the United States and every other country in the Americas.”
“And indeed, we remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas, practice their faith; where the commitment to economic and social justice is realized more fully; where institutions are answerable to those they serve; and where civil society is independent and allowed to flourish.”
We “believe it’s helpful for the people of our nations to learn more about each other, to meet each other. That is why we are encouraged that travel from the United States to Cuba has already increased by 35 percent since January and is continuing to go up. We are encouraged that more and more U.S. companies are exploring commercial ventures here that would create opportunities for Cuba’s own rising number of entrepreneurs, and we are encouraged that U.S. firms are interested in helping Cuba expand its telecommunications and internet links, and that the government here recently pledged to create dozens of new and more affordable Wi-Fi hotspots.”
“The restoration of diplomatic ties will also make it easier for our governments to engage. After all, we are neighbors, and neighbors will always have much to discuss in such areas as civil aviation, migration policy, disaster preparedness, protecting marine environment, global climate change, and other tougher and more complicated issues. Having normal relations makes it easier for us to talk, and talk can deepen understanding even when we know full well we will not see eye to eye on everything.”
“We are all aware that . . . the overall U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba remains in place and can only be lifted by congressional action – a step that we strongly favor. For now, the President has taken steps to ease restrictions on remittances, on exports and imports to help Cuban private entrepreneurs, on telecommunications, on family travel, but we want to go further. The goal of all of these changes is to help Cubans connect to the world and to improve their lives. And just as we are doing our part, we urge the Cuban Government to make it less difficult for their citizens to start businesses, to engage in trade, access information online. The embargo has always been something of a two-way street – both sides need to remove restrictions that have been holding Cubans back.”
Kerry also thanked “leaders throughout the Americas who have long urged the United States and Cuba to restore normal ties [and] the Holy Father Pope Francis and the Vatican for supporting the start of a new chapter in relations between our countries.”
He then paid “tribute to the people of Cuba and to the Cuban American community in the United States. Jose Marti once said that ‘everything that divides men…is a sin against humanity.’ Clearly, the events of the past – the harsh words, the provocative and retaliatory actions, the human tragedies – all have been a source of deep division that has diminished our common humanity. There have been too many days of sacrifice and sorrow; too many decades of suspicion and fear. That is why I am heartened by the many on both sides of the Straits who . . . have endorsed this search for a better path.”
“We have begun to move down that path without any illusions about how difficult it may be. But we are each confident in our intentions, confident in the contacts that we have made, and pleased with the friendships that we have begun to forge. And we are certain that the time is now to reach out to one another, as two peoples who are no longer enemies or rivals, but neighbors – time to unfurl our flags, raise them up, and let the world know that we wish each other well.”
In attendance at the ceremony were Embassy staff, including Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the charge d’affaires; other U.S. federal government officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, who led the U.S. delegation in recent negotiations with Cuba; other countries’ diplomats; U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT), Barbara Boxer (Dem., CA), Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) and Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ);  U.S. Representatives Karen Bass (Dem., CA), Steve Cohen (Dem., TN), Barbara Lee (Dem., CA) and Jim McGovern (Dem., MA);  and James Williams, President of Engage Cuba, and Zane Kerby, President & CEO of American Society of Travel Agents.
Also in attendance was a Cuban delegation, including Josafina Vidal, who led the Cuban team in those negotiations; and Dr. José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez, the new Cuban Ambassador to the U.S. 
Another highlight of the ceremony was the beautiful reading of a beautiful poem, “Matters of the Sea” or “Cosas del Mar,” by the Cuban-American poet, Richard Blanco. Afterwards Kerry walked around old Havana, met privately with Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, participated in a joint press conference with Rodriguez and met with Cuban dissidents at the official Havana residence of the U.S. charge d’affaires These other events of the day will be discussed in subsequent posts.
 Separate press releases celebrating the formal opening of the U.S. Embassy were issued by Senators Leahy, Boxer, Klobuchar and Flake. Back in the U.S. Senator Marco Rubio denounced the opening of the Embassy.
 Representatives Cohen, Lee and McGovern issued press releases welcoming the reopening of the Embassy in Havana.
 Dr.Cabañas visited Minnesota last October and was mentioned in a prior post.
The U.S. State Department’s just-released 2013Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’ chapter on Cuba needs analysis.
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.  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.
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.
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.
 A prior post reviewed the Department’s overall summary of global human rights in 2013.
 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.