The Battle for Human Rights in Cuba

comments on a critical “temporary situation”

By Armando Chaguaceda & Eloy Viera

Illustration by Julio Llopiz

HAVANA TIMES – For decades, the Cuban government has upheld the idea that there is a political and social system on the island that will place some human rights (the Human Rights we Defend) above others (1). 

Imposed since the early 1960s, the US embargo against Cuba has been used as an excuse to perpetuate a view that was constructed during the Cold War; against universality, indivisibility and enforceability that should be a guiding light.

Meanwhile, progress made in achieving social rights such as healthcare and education (which are in crisis right now), have been used by the ruling elite to justify repression and limited civic and political rights.

Different international civil society groups point out a critical situation and view on the issue. According to “Freedom on the Net: The Crisis of Social Media” report (2019) by Freedom House, Cuba is the least free country on the Internet in the Americas and the fourth worst on a global scale, out of the 65 countries it monitors. According to the CIVICUS Monitor indicator that reveals the validity of freedoms of association, expression and peaceful meeting, Cuba’s civic space classifies as “closed”.

The 2019 Freedom of Speech Report, from the Inter-American System, identifies the systematic persecution of independent journalists who publish information and opinions about matters of public interest. In its statement published on April 18, 2020, this very body expressed its concern for restricted freedoms of expression and access to information in the State’s response to COVID-19, highlighting the cases of journalists who have been fined, under Decree-Law 370.

The United Nations have also recently picked up on and called out this situation. The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression has also expressed concern ((Internal Communication AL CUB 5/2019) over Cuba’s different mechanisms of repression. This year, the Special Rapporteur drew attention to the adverse situation of human rights advocates in this Caribbean country.

Official recognition in Cuba of rights such as freedom of expression, which is stipulated in the 1976 Constitution, was later conditioned (in Article 53.) “in keeping with the objectives of socialist society.” They have now been recognized without restrictions in the new Carta Magna (2019) when it stipulates that “The State recognizes, respects and guarantees people freedom of thought, conscience and expression.”

However, at the same time, these rights have been limited in more minor laws, conditioning them to discretional and conservative opinions – such as “respect for the country’s morale, good customs and general interests”, and the most serious, they are considered criminal acts.

In reality, the Cuban State continues to respond with greater restrictions in the face of growing scrutiny, both nationally and internationally. This visibility is now thanks to growing Internet access and civic initiatives led by different population groups.

With the economic crisis becoming more severe, public discontent is growing, as is the State’s repressive response. The latter is not limited to right-wing opponents, who openly oppose the government. It also extends to those on the Left, who propose reforms to the system in force. Or even to poor people, who are making basic demands for services and basic rights, such as access to housing and food.

In recent years, the elaboration of reforms, and their incoherent implementation, have widened the gap between the elite who benefit from these changes and large segments of the population who have become net losers. These disposable beings make up different urban and rural working classes, without family remittances, residents in the capital’s peripheral neighborhoods and interior, blacks and mestizos, the elderly and women. They are the Revolution’s (forgotten) children.

The pandemic reveals a power project where building State capitalism is legitimized by an anachronistic revolutionary mystique.

Budgets last year from the report “Selected Indicators, January – December 2020” from the National Office of Statistics, show a great asymmetry between the amount dedicated to tourism and related building investments, and the weak budgets dedicated to education, health and social security. Precisely the iconic conquests of the Revolution in official discourse (2).

This all means that it is more unsustainable than ever that repression of dissidents and public protests in Cuba are only being directed at actors and allegedly minor demands, which are identified as “instruments of the US”, like some analysts claim (3).

First of all, because there isn’t any trustworthy empirical evidence that can confirm the level of popular support or rejection any political leader has. The government doesn’t let its critics express themselves or participate equally in political decision-making that affects the nation.

Second of all, because evidence that repression is not only being targeted at “minority groups” today, but also any politically active citizen – including those who defend socialist ideology – is becoming less and less irrefutable.

For example, on March 30, 2021, a peaceful protest was held on a main street in Havana. After the protest, the police arrested a dozen people; including a university student who was carrying a sign with the phrase “Socialismo Si, Represion No.”. That young man was formally charged with public disorder.

On the other hand, repression of San Isidro Movement members – including the illegal detention of Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, which has been denounced by organizations such as Amnesty International (4) – and the harassment of activists and intellectuals that took part in 27N (November 27, 2020 protest), reflect a pattern of state criminalization for any initiative that promotes citizens taking independent action. Even when peaceful means are used, calling for dialogue and abiding with the current Constitution.

As we write this article, the El Salvadorean and Guatemalan governments are criminalizing the independent organization and actions of citizens, with a typical punishment logic of right-wing populism. Nayib Bukele and Alejandro Giammattei’s arguments are similar to their Cuban Leninist counterparts: civil society is just external subversion, that goes against national interests and lacks popular support.

In response to this conservative attack, international solidarity has been stepped up, from democratic governments and activists. Something that is still missing with Cuba. Even in regional activism. 

Human rights are a construction where different political ideologies and social subjects come together. They are a field of reflection and action, where political bias should have no place.

We interpret them using our own ideological views, but we need to conceive and defend them as a whole. They should be demandable – with mechanisms in place so they can be demanded and defended – and universal, innate to the entire population, with their identity and social status.

However, they are indivisible because if we don’t have and exercise our civil and political rights – of liberal ancestry – we will never be able to defend social, economic and cultural rights, the children of progressivism. If we don’t have the latter, the former will always be fragile instruments in the personal and collective struggle for human dignity.

Read more from Cuba here.