Ron Radosh

A New Proposal for Dealing with Castro's Cuba: From Human Rights Watch and the NYRB

For years, the American left was known for its continuing commitment to refusing to tell the truth about the repression of human rights by Fidel and Raul Castro and their prison “socialist” regime run out of Havana. The truth was there for all to see, but the standard response of those on the political left was the expected one: First, the reports are false ones spread by the enemies of socialism. Two, even if their claims were true, (of course, they argued they were false) they served only to give aid to the enemies of socialism and those who care about the “option of serving the poor,” the goal of the Communist government in Cuba.

There used to be a variant of the above when the Soviet Union still existed, and its funneling of millions of dollars yearly to Cuba was the lifeline allowing the Cuban government to continue to exist. For those who dissented- for example, by condemning the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968-it was said that to do that would hurt the very regime that was keeping the valiant Cuban Revolution alive. Those who persisted, as Christopher Hitchens writes in his new memoir Hitch-22, were immediately branded “counter-revolutionaries” by their comrades.

It has taken many many years, but finally major journals of opinion on the left are beginning to tell the truth about Cuba. The latest example is from the pages of The New York Review of Books, which if any publication represents the left intelligentsia in America, can claim the mantle. In “Cuba-A Way Forward,” Daniel Wilkinson and Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch give readers a riveting example of what they found when traveling through the island surreptitiously, without government approval and on tourist passports, in 2009.  The authors write:

Piece by piece, the evidence stacked up. The human rights treaties had not been ratified or carried out. The “open” forums to discuss government policies were governed by strict rules that prohibited any talk of reforming the single-party system. More than one hundred political prisoners locked up under Fidel remained behind bars, and Raúl’s government had used sham trials to lock away scores more. These new prisoners included more than forty dissidents whom Raúl had imprisoned for “dangerousness.” The most Orwellian provision of Cuba’s criminal code, this charge allows authorities to imprison individuals before they have committed a crime, on the suspicion that they might commit one in the future. Their “dangerous” activities included failing to attend pro-government rallies, not belonging to official party organizations, and simply being unemployed.

I imagine that many readers of the NYRB and The Nation will still be shocked to learn this, although anyone who reads Jay Nordlinger’s many blogs about repression in Cuba- Jay has been a one-man band regularly highlighting what others prefer to forget about-will be gratified that others are finally learning what conservatives have long known.

Steinberg and Wilkonson write that they “ obtained reports of alleged government abuses from several unauthorized human rights groups in Cuba, whose leaders have persevered over the years despite tapped phone lines, restricted mobility, frequent police raids, and periods in jail, relying on a few committed volunteers to compile lists of political prisoners and testimony about violations.”  With persistence and dedication,  they found and relate how many brave Cubans seek non-violently to protest the continued abuse of human rights. The result, as they relate individual cases, are the loss of jobs, imprisonment, roughing up by government gangs, and even more. One shoemaker, they write, was indicted and aside from his own brave work of documenting repression, was condemned for “thinking he is handsome.” Anything, in Cuba, can evidently be considered criminal activity.

Those who refuse reeducation, the fiendish term for forced confession after prison, “were thrown into solitary confinement cells measuring three by six feet for weeks, even months, on end. Their visits were cut off, phone calls denied, and letters confiscated.” The authors do not say so, but one wonders whether these Cuban prisoners of conscience sometimes wished they were guests of the United States in the nearby Guantanamo facility in which the Taliban and other prisoners suspected of being terrorists are being held.

The authors realize fully that even if not locked up, dissidents are “effectively imprisoned on the island itself.”  When Castro years ago changed his entire country into one big prison, one of the very first Cuban dissidents,  Carlos Franqui, made that very point years ago in his own book on Cuba. As for the blogosphere we have heard so much about, it means little in Cuba, where most of the people have no access to the internet. And the Cuban regime has learned its lessons from the old Stasi- whose members trained the Cuban security police-and from Stalin as well. Relatives of dissidents find they too are unemployable, and are regularly harassed for being related to the person suffering in prison. 

The defendants of Castroism, of course, argue that few are outspoken, although we no longer hear that turnout at mass rallies prove the loyalty of the people, as they scream “Viva Fidel! Venceremos!” The truth, as Steinberg and Wilkinson write, is that “to criticize the Castros is to condemn oneself of years of enforced solitude.”

Having described the reality, the authors turn to the next big question: What should the United States do to help the Cuban people life the decades of repression? Should it support regime change, or just work to get the existing government to ease up on the restrictions on liberty imposed on the Cuban people?  Castro’s defenders have stated that to demand change in Cuba violates the nation’s sovereign rights, an argument they never made when it came to advocating pressure against the South African apartheid regime.

We know that the left has a different standard which they apply to regimes of the left and the right. But here, the authors argue that there is some merit to their argument. As they put it, “Cuba has indeed, for five decades, faced an explicit threat to its national sovereignty- coming from the United States, a superpower ninety miles off its shore.”

What they ignore, of course, is that other Latin American governments regularly suffered an infringement on their sovereignty coming from Cuba and the Castros, especially in the period in which Castro and Che Guevara favored guerrilla wars to overthrow authoritarian and liberal democratic regimes in the Western Hemisphere that were not socialist, and that rejected the path of revolution as their goal. And they include in this supposed war both the US embargo on trade with Cuba and the Helms-Burton Act, which prohibits lifting trade restrictions until Cuba legalizes political activity and holds full and fair free elections. They argue, since the bill says the Castros must relinquish power, that it requires “Cubans be free to choose their leaders, but bars them from choosing the Castros.”

The above is rather ridiculous. If the Castros controlled the electoral process, which they would if in power, the elections could never be free. One should at least assure that the mechanism for elections is put in place by neutral international groups, and not under government aegis. Then Fidel and Raul could run, and like Daniel Ortega in 1989, would find they would be easily defeated since elections could be held without fear.

Yet, the authors are correct that as for the embargo, not only has it not loosened the Castros hold on power, but has provided the government an excuse to justify their rule and their repression. They note that the Verela Project for a national referendum gained 11,000 signatures. Yet rather than allow it to be put to a vote, they introduced a law declaring their communist system “irrevocable,” which the government announced received 99 per cent approval. (shades of Stalin again)  Next, the authors write, “the government began its most aggressive crackdown in years.”  My question is this: What makes them think merely saying Castro could run would suddenly change the regime’s behavior?

Indeed, the authors themselves describe how if a Cuban journalist goes to the U.S. Interests Section to read forbidden newspapers, like The Miami Herald, and registers that he has received funding from the US, such as an  NED grant (National Endowment for Democracy), he is admitting to a crime punishable to 20 years imprisonment, even if the funding was for acts like legal labor organizing, establishing an independent library, etc.  But they make what I consider a faulty analogy:

Since promoting democratic rule is a central objective of Helms-Burton, any action taken toward that end can therefore be considered a crime. In this way, just as criticism of the Castros is equated with abetting their enemies, promoting democracy is equated with US-sponsored regime change.

This analysis smacks of the old doctrine of moral equivalence. Do the authors mean to say the analogy is correct, or that the Castroites and their defenders are simply making it? The Castro brothers will always make the argument that promoting democracy means regime change.

The authors claim that the problem is that the Cuban regime casts its repression “as the story of a small nation defending itself against a powerful aggressor.” But everyone knows- especially Cubans- that few people any longer fall for that argument. So what if Castro makes it? As for the fellow travelers of Castro, they write that “the indignation provoked by the US embargo left little room for the revulsion they would otherwise feel for Fidel Castro’s abuses.” Really? Don’t we all know the embargo has failed; that Cuba gets American resources supposedly kept out via other nations that send banned goods and material to Cuba, even if they are US products? If some people are so thick that “they think first of what the US has done to Cuba, not what Cuba has done to its own people,” lifting the embargo is not going to change their minds. After all, these are the mindless leftists we are talking about, for whom nothing will end their love for Fidel and the Revolution.

They note, for example, that both President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and former President Michelle Bachelet of Chile made state visits to Cuba, and “embraced the Castros and refused to meet with relatives of political prisoners.” That, indeed, is my very point. These two, who were imprisoned by right-wing dictatorships and were both political prisoners, and the latter a victim of torture, are leaders of the Latin American left! Their sympathies are with Castro and his ideological agenda, despite the moderation they displayed as leaders in their own countries. If the embargo was lifted, they and types like them will not suddenly shun Castro and embrace the cause of the dissidents. I don’t recall these types rushing in the late 80’s to defend Vaclav Havel and the Czechs as communism was beginning to collapse in Eastern Europe.

Yet, when it comes to the bottom line of their argument, they make a valid point:

The embargo must go. But it is naive to think that a government that has systematically repressed virtually all forms of political dissent for decades will cease to do so simply because the embargo has been lifted. Nor is it realistic, given the effectiveness of the Castros’ repressive machinery, to believe that the pressure needed for progress on human rights can come solely from within Cuba. The embargo needs to be replaced with a policy that will bring genuinely effective pressure on the Castro government to improve human rights.

They propose that the US lift the embargo, in return for which other governments in Europe and Latin America demand that all political prisoners in Cuba be immediately released. I would extend it to demanding that truly free and monitored elections be scheduled, with full rights for international monitors not controlled by the Cuban government brought in to  supervise and report on the voting.  And I think their proposal for tough new sanctions be introduced that  directly target the Cuban leaders, including freezing their overseas assets, is a good and sound idea.

It is a sign of maturity that Human Rights Watch, once known in the 80’s in the United States as a group that regularly attacked the abuses of the Nicaraguan “contras” while ignoring those of the Sandinistas and the regime they controlled, has two of its key figures in the region calling for tough new measures against the Castro dictatorship.

Of course, they end by writing that when the US “stops acting like Goliath, the Castro government will stop looking like David.” In fact, the US has if anything, not acted like Goliath in a long time. It has done virtually little to oppose Castro or support his opponents. And frankly, I doubt whether President Barack Obama will suddenly be the US leader who changes course and stands up to the eternal Commandante. At least, for a change, Human Rights Watch and the NYRB has given him some sound advice.