Human Rights and the Thawing of the U.S.-Cuba Deep Freeze

By Meghan L. Morris*


Last week, the United States and Cuba announced that they would open diplomatic relations, after a deep freeze that has lasted more than half a century. This move was an explicit acknowledgement by the Obama administration that the decades-long policy “has had little effect beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people.” Although the economic embargo remains in place – lifting it entirely will require U.S. congressional action – last week’s announcement will open the doors to travel, increased remittances, access to technology, and commerce, amongst other crucial shifts in the relationship between the two countries.

For almost as long as this freeze has been in place, the notion of human rights has been a central rallying point both for critics and supporters of the Cuban regime. Its critics have decried restrictions on freedom of the press, speech, and assembly, citing the number of political prisoners in Cuba and the detention of journalists. In a 2008 speech, Obama himself echoed this sentiment, stating that “[m]y policy towards Cuba will be guided by one word, liberty.” In response, its supporters have emphasized Cuba’s record on economic and social rights, such as the fact that Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, at nearly 100%, and a significantly lower infant mortality rate than the United States.

These arguments themselves represent yet another Cold War relic: the separation of civil and political rights from economic and social rights. Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights made no such distinction, fears of communism during the Cold War led to the creation of two distinct Covenants – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This separation has been the subject of unending discussion and debate (amongst many other fora, on this very blog), even as the United Nations itself acknowledges that “the enjoyment of all human rights is interlinked.” This artificial separation has provided fuel to many fires, particularly issues such as the debate over U.S.-Cuba relations, which were born of the same Cold War fears. Critiques of Cuba’s human rights record that equated human rights with civil and political rights were so pervasive that the Cuban government itself began to resist the notion of “human rights,” refusing to sign either the ICCPR or the ICESCR.

The immediate reaction to last week’s announcement manifested, in part, these old tropes. Although protests of the announcement were smaller than expected – even the predictable scuffle outside of Café Versailles in Miami’s Little Havana was muted, with a few scattered chants of “Obama Comunista” greeted by congratulatory signs – Cuba’s staunchest critics stuck to human rights as political freedom. Florida Senator Marco Rubio insisted that Cuba remained a state sponsor of terrorism, focusing on Cuba’s imprisonment of dissidents and restriction of freedom to information, and accusing the Obama administration of refusing to “advocate for individual liberty and freedom of political expression 90 miles from our shores.” In her first blog about the announcement, Cuban dissident Yoani Sánchez emphasized that just this month, Cuban activists had once again had their civil liberties curtailed on International Human Rights Day. And even Obama himself, while acknowledging Cuba’s advances in health care in his announcement, made clear that the remaining differences between the U.S. and Cuba were “related to democracy and human rights.”

The first time I visited Cuba, I flew in from Peru, where I had been working with communities in the Amazon that were suffering from the environmental effects of oil drilling by an American corporation. Many community members had died or were ill as a result of the contamination, and health care was nonexistent in the region. One young woman was so ill that her mother asked us to take her by boat to the oil company, where we begged begged for the company doctor to treat her. I will never forget the shock of arriving in Havana after this trip, and being at home with my perfectly healthy host when the neighborhood doctor stopped by simply to remind her that it was time for a (free) checkup. And then the related dismay at discovering, on a different visit, how much a friend who is a doctor was forced to pay the Cuban government for the privilege to travel abroad to visit her foreign husband, due to the travel restrictions placed on Cuban doctors. These experiences, among many others, demonstrated how limited the exclusive lens of civil and political rights was for assessing the success or failure of the Cuban regime. They also showed how intertwined the enjoyment and restriction of these rights (such as travel) are with what the Cuban government considers to be its flagship social and economic achievements (such as health care).

Much work lies ahead for the thawing of the long freeze between the U.S. and Cuba. Part of this work, if it is to succeed, will involve a broader and deeper assessment of Cuba in all its social and political complexity, and an imagining of what a 21stcentury relationship between Cuba and the U.S. might look like. This requires moving beyond a notion of Cuba as static in time or as a terrorist state – something that the Obama administration is clearly prepared to do. But it also involves dismantling the other Cold War relics that have served to polarize debate and support U.S.-Cuba enmity for so many years. One of the most important of these relics is the separation of rights and the narrow vision of human rights as civil liberties. Breaking down this relic will open new space for Cuba’s internal and external relationships to change and evolve, and allow for a more honest analysis of the successes of the Cuban experiment as well as its failures.

Over the past several days, Cuban dissidents have issued demands for the Cuban government to sign the ICCPR and ICESCR, demonstrating its commitment to human rights as the thawing of its relationship with the U.S. commences. As discussion of this possibility is underway, we would do well to recall the common genesis of the division of these rights and the division along the Florida Straits, and do what is in our power to ensure that both of these Cold War relics go the way of the Berlin Wall.


*Meghan L. Morris is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago and an Affiliated Researcher at Dejusticia (the Center for Law, Justice and Society)

Photo credit: Thomassin Mickaël