What exactly is happening in Cuba? Every week, it seems, we read stories about economic reforms implemented by the Communist government. Cubans can now legally work as entrepreneurs in more than 180 different occupations, and they are no longer prohibited from selling their homes or motor vehicles, or from traveling abroad (provided they can secure a passport). Meanwhile, the number of state-sector jobs has declined significantly. In addition, Raúl Castro has promised that his current five-year term as Cuban president (which began in late February) will be his last, meaning he will retire in 2018.
Americans are always on the lookout for signs that Cuba is finally changing, and the changes listed above have prompted many journalists, analysts, and political figures to renew their calls for lifting or at least softening the U.S. embargo. After traveling to the island in mid-February as part of an official delegation of federal lawmakers, Democratic senator Pat Leahy of Vermont expressed his hope for a shift in U.S. policy: “There is a growing sense by many in the U.S. who do not have a Cold War attitude that they would like to see a change.”
But the biggest impediment to closer bilateral relations is not “a Cold War attitude” on Capitol Hill, nor is it the American embargo. It is the behavior of the Castro regime. Indeed, we should not let Havana’s timid economic reforms or its new travel policy distract us from the more important story: In its treatment of human-rights activists, pro-democracy dissidents, and pretty much anyone it considers a threat to Communist rule, the Cuban government is becoming more repressive, not less.
* During the first nine months of 2011, the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCHRNR) documented some 2,784 “incidents of human-rights abuses,” compared with 2,074 in all of 2010.
* In March 2012, Amnesty International reported that, since 2010, there had been “a steady increase in the number of arbitrary detentions,” with the Castro regime waging “a permanent campaign of harassment and short-term detentions of political opponents.” One of Amnesty’s Cuba researchers affirmed that “Cuba has seen worsening repression when it comes to human rights.”
* Over the next ten months, between March 2012 and January 2013, the number of political prisoners on the island doubled (from 45 to 90), according to the CCHRNR. Those figures only include prisoners jailed on explicitly political charges; the total number of Cuban political prisoners is much larger, since the regime is holding many dissidents on bogus criminal charges.
* In its latest Freedom in the World report, Freedom House says: “The Cuban government oversaw a systematic increase in short-term ‘preventative’ detentions of dissidents in 2012, in addition to harassment, beatings, acts of repudiation, and restrictions on foreign and domestic travel.”
* Overall, notes Miami Herald correspondent Juan Tamayo, Cuba witnessed “a record 6,200 short-term detentions for political motives” last year.