Supporting Cuba without Forgetting Human Rights

another appeal to Joe Biden

Photo: El Toque

By El Toque

HAVANA TIMES – According to some national and international public opinion, Cuba’s economic and humanitarian crisis today is unprecedented. Several US organizations agree with this opinion, and are asking their Government to take new action or comply with previous measures so they can provide urgent aid to the Cuban people.

The Center of Democracy in the Americas (CDA), Cuba Study Group and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) published a joint statement on June 5, 2023, about the severe crisis in Cuba and the pressing need for the US to have a more comprehensive response.

The organizations asked the Biden Administration to adopt new measures to improve the humanitarian situation on the island, beyond those announced in May 2022. Back then, it was announced that commercial flights to provinces outside of Havana would once again be authorized, the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program would start up again, obstacles for money transfers and remittances would be lifted and greater support would be given to business owners and educational trips.

While these organizations point out that the Cuban Government “bears primary responsibility for the economic mismanagement and oppressive practices that contributed to this crisis,” they also acknowledge that the US government can play a more constructive role in improving the humanitarian situation on the island.

Bearing in mind the urgency of the situation, the CDA, Cuba Study Group and WOLA recommend implementing policy solutions that will ensure safe and orderly regional migration, as well as enacting measures announced a year ago to enhance support for the private sector.

In terms of migration, their advice is to reopen the refugee section at the US Embassy in Havana, and to reinstate five-year multiple-entry visas for non-immigrants. “A crisis of such depth requires addressing both the deficiencies of current US immigration policy and the promotion of rights-based measures, including access to asylum and expanding other legal migration channels for those with protection needs,” the joint statement points out.

In terms of supporting Cuba’s private sector, the three associations are asking President Biden to enact all of the measures he announced in May 2022, which have yet to be implemented. These include authorized access to expanded cloud technology, application programming interfaces, and e-commerce platforms; additional payment options for Internet-based activities, electronic payments; business with independent Cuban entrepreneurs; as well as microfinance and training.

Despite the Cuban Government having undertaken economic reforms such as legalizing small and medium-sized private enterprises and expanding the range of economic activities for the self-employed, these organizations are complaining that countless restrictions are still in place that stand in the way of US and Cuban business relationships.

They also expressed concern for the US’ decision to keep Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. In early May 2023, the Principal Deputy Spokesperson of the US Department of State, Vedant Patel, dismissed removing Cuba from the list because he said, “The regime has a long history of crackdowns on civil society and other factors that keep it on the list.”

However, the organizations point out the obstacles that this designation has on sending and delivering humanitarian aid to the island can also prevent independent Cuban entrepreneurs from accessing international banking services.

Another obstacle that stems from Cuba’s presence on this list is the restriction on foreign nationals visiting Cuba without losing their US visa waivers under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). “This limitation affects travelers to Cuba from over 40 countries including Japan and all European Union countries, effectively curbing travel and exchange with the island. The Administration has the opportunity to do good on the promise to initiate a timely review of this designation,” they added.

The Statement issues a wake-up call when it reports that approximately 3% of the Cuban population has sought refuge in the US in the past two years alone, and this phenomenon will continue as long as the crisis remains unsolved. With that in mind, they believe that US policy on Cuba should contribute to improving conditions on the ground and prevent the implementation of restricting measures that isolate and impose a heavy toll on Cuban families without effectively addressing the situation or promoting democratic reforms.

“The achievements of the 2014–2017 thaw under the presidency of Barack Obama demonstrated that the US can address concerns surrounding human rights, humanitarian conditions, and democratic practices while supporting the Cuban people through smart policy, diplomacy, and dialogue,” the text states.

The Center of Democracy for the Americas, Cuba Study Group and the Washington Office on Latin America have stood together and taken a stance on the Cuban crisis on previous occasions. In August 2022, after the explosion at the Matanzas Supertanker Base, they appealed to the US Government in a statement signed by another twelve organizations, for “immediate disaster relief, enhanced bilateral cooperation, and the suspension of sanctions to support the Cuban people.”

Before that, in December 2021, WOLA and CDA published the study: “The United States and Cuba: A New Policy of Engagement,” which proposed a three-phase roadmap to relaunch connections between both countries, which would eventually lead to a normalized relations in every sphere.

Assessing steps taken by the Obama and Trump Administrations, they urged Washington to take a series of unilateral actions to reduce – and eliminate in the future – economic sanctions, improve bilateral relations and expand tourism, cultural and student exchanges. Both associations believe that a possible normalization via commitment would distance the Cuban Government from Russia and China’s influence and presence, would promote domestic reforms and improve the Cuban people’s situation.

The organizations’ fear that Cuba would move closer towards China and Russia has gained ground in today’s context. Cuba’s economic and political alliance with Russia has become significantly stronger with a variety of conventions and agreements in different sectors.

On the other hand, the article published in The Wall Street Journal on June 8, 2023 states that China and Cuba have reached a secret agreement so the Asian power can establish an electronic surveillance spy base in Cuba, according to US officials who are familiar with highly-classified intelligence. Cuba’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Relations, Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, has denied the veracity of the news article and has labeled it “totally dishonest and baseless information.” Joe Biden’s Administration also claimed it had no information that Cuba had agreed to opening a Chinese spy base on its soil.

Cuban SMEs, between Tyrians and Trojans 

The joint statement issued by the three US organizations on June 5, 2023 arrives at a time when civil society actors both in and outside Cuba are calling the emerging series of SMEs the Government has approved in the private sector “fake”.

A document from Cuba’s Independent Union Association (ASIC), the Independent Farmers League and the Latin American Federation of Rural Women (FLAMUR), points out that the Cuban Government is denying economic freedom to those who wish to start up their own business, while also promoting their acolytes as owners of MSMEs to “sidestep international sanctions on the Cuban State.”

Independent organizations are placing the GAESA company, which “consumes most of the budget in tourist investments amidst pandemics and food shortages, but doesn’t take accountability for its management.” They are also asking the Government why they leased land for 30 years to the Russians, according to statements from high-ranking Russian officials, instead of liberating Cuban farmers from Cuba’s state purchasing entity, tax harassment and the ban on receiving investments or selling without national and international intermediaries.

Many activists believe the owners and managers of these new businesses are partners and members of Cuba’s ruling elite. Some exposed cases have been the first SME in Matanzas, Alimentos Aleli, supported by Gerardo Hernandez, who shared the news on his social media and photos with the owners.

A shoe SME in Camajuani, Villa Clara, also came to light, which belongs to Yoandy Riveron, known as the official named Cristian of the Political Police. Riveron was pointed out by Cuban journalist and activist Jose Raul Gallego as one of the people responsible for the harassment, abuse and expulsion of several students and professors at the Universidad Central de las Villas; including Karla Perez González (2017), Dalila Rodriguez (2016-2017) and Javier Larrea (2018-2020)

An article by ADN exposes the close relationships between SMEs and Cuban state bodies such as the Flora y Fauna Business Group, which Revolution leader Guillermo Garcia Frias runs with his daughter Loretta Garcia; the presentation of State Security officer Carlos Serpa Maseira and undercover agent Carlos Vazquez Gonzalez, known as Fernando, as business owners; as well as the Pepa business by Pepa Blasco, a children’s clothing and adult gift brand created by Lourdes Davalos, a lawyer who formed part of the Cuban Government’s legal team in the London trial, alongside her father Rodolfo Davalos.

Civil society actors’ concerns grew after US business owners and economic organizations expressed their new intentions to resume trade relations with Cuba. On June 6, 2023, US business owners spoke in Havana about options to set up businesses, scientific exchanges, cooperative efforts and teaching on the island.

The President of Cuba’s Chamber of Commerce, Antonio Carricarte, highlighted the existing potential for Cuba’s state-led and private business owners, to promote exports of products – such as honey, coffee and charcoal -, to the US He also pointed out that he is thinking about receiving trade missions in the future and the possibility that SMEs might be able to connect with their US counterparts. 

Meanwhile, a representative from the Hope for Cuba foundation, Jorge Ignacio Fernandez, said that the organization is encouraging relationships with business owners who have an interest in trading with the island and working in sustainable energy; while US business owner Mark Baum, the senior deputy-president of Industry Relations and Partnership director at the Institute for Food Commercialization, expressed his interest in getting to know the Cuban market to identify areas where they might be able to collaborate.

While there are cases of SMEs where owners are family members or allies of the military and political elite in Cuba, economist Pavel Vidal believes that the wide-sweeping statement that they are a majority is a biased generalization, as there are no statistics or objective sources of information that can verify this.

Small businesses have been the subject of different critique from citizens because their main activity tends to be importing products and then reselling them. Vidal has pointed out that the “trade sector adds value; in fact, it’s one of the principal sectors that contributes the most to the GDP in any economy.”

The economist notes that “SMEs don’t cause inflation, they need to adapt to it to ensure financial viability in their balance sheets and operations.” Furthermore, blaming spiraling prices on the private sector diverts attention away from the Government and its unbalanced management of the national budget.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times

3 thoughts on “Supporting Cuba without Forgetting Human Rights

  • The above unilateral policy reform suggestions would, no doubt, cumulatively have a positive impact on the Cuban economy. But where is Cuba’s response to these reforms? Does the Castro dictatorship plan to do anything other than further cozy up to the Russians and the Chinese? If so, this would be the worst time to relax the relationship. When Obama made efforts to improve relations with Cuba in 2016, including a presidential visit, Fidel Castro spat in Obama’s eye by rejecting Obama’s good will gestures. I suggest that we wait and see how the downward spiral in Cuba today continues to play out.

  • Michael Wiggin should note that under the dictatorship of Raul Castro Ruz, repression in Cuba not only has continued, but has increased. The regime’s repression is carried out by the Ministry of the Interior (MININT), under the direction of General Alejandro Castro Espin, the Moscow KGB trained son of Raul. Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez has proven to be an obedient, compliant puppet in carrying out the directions still being given by Raul sitting in Siboney.

    Increased repression can be no surprise, as it was Raul that re-wrote the Constitution currently in place, and he was and continues to be an ardent supporter of the Stalinist interpretation of Marx/Engel/Lenin 19th century thinking.

    Various organizations may promote various ideas both within and without the US, but the legal reality of the US Cuban Democracy Act, is that requiring a 60% vote by the US Congress to recommend to the US President – whoever that might be, to remove the embargo. Pious hopes achieve nothing.

  • It is most encouraging to see these initiatives by organizations within the USA. We can criticize the Cuban government but we cannot underestimate the impact of US policies to isolate Cuba in efforts directed at regime change. Most academics and journalists that I correspond with would strongly support the changes advocated. Then, if the Cuban government was not looking over its back all of the time, then political and economic reform would follow as appeared likely under Raul Castro. I hope we can see Cuba return as a valued member of the western hemispheric community.

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