In his speech to the Cuban people in Havana, President Barack Obama declared, “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas. … I’ve urged the people of the Americas to leave behind the ideological battles of the past.” But Obama made clear that his desire to end the decades-long US economic blockade of the island is not a response to the sheer inhumanity of the policy, it is simply an acknowledgement that it has failed to bring down Cuba’s socialist system and return the country to capitalism. Obama then proceeded to spend much of his speech telling Cubans that they should live under a US-style democracy and a capitalist economy. In other words, he has no intention of leaving behind “the ideological battles of the past.” He is simply shifting strategy.
During his trip, Obama frequently referred to human rights in Cuba and in his speech to the Cuban people declared, “I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear, to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights.” Not surprisingly, the US press corps covering Obama’s visit obediently fell in step with the president’s message on the issue of human rights.
But Cuba has been forced to survive in the face of repeated aggression by the world’s most powerful nation. For more than half a century the United States has actively sought to bring down the Cuban government and replace Cuba’s socialist system with capitalism. To this end, it launched a failed attempt to invade Cuba, has made countless attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, and the CIA has supported and funded Miami-based Cuban exile groups that have exploded numerous bombs in Havana and who blew up a Cuban airliner in mid-flight, killing all 78 people on board.
In addition to all of these efforts to topple both the Cuban government and its socialist system, Washington has enforced the oppressive economic blockade of the tiny island for the past 55 years. And, under Obama, the United States has continued to fund pro-US groups in Cuba in violation of Cuban law. This history of aggression, which is ongoing, has been largely ignored by the US mainstream media, which has instead chosen to focus on the “political prisoners” in Cuba’s jails.
But who are these so-called political prisoners? Political prisoners are defined as those accused or convicted of crimes committed to achieve political objectives. In other words, they have broken the law. Such offenders are not “prisoners of conscience,” which are people engaged in non-violent activities who have been imprisoned solely for their political views. According to Amnesty International’s latest report, there are currently no prisoners of conscience in Cuba.
Media coverage of Obama’s visit has repeatedly focused on the Ladies in White organization, which protests weekly in Havana in support of political prisoners in Cuba. The US media highlighted the fact that the Ladies in White protesters were rounded up by police during a demonstration on the day Obama arrived in Havana. These arrests have been repeatedly pointed to by the media and pundits as a graphic example of how Cuba violates the human rights of peaceful political protesters. As such, it would appear that arrested members of the Ladies in White constitute prisoners of conscience. But such an assumption ignores an important exclusion clause in Amnesty International’s definition of “prisoner of conscience,” which states, “We also exclude those people who have conspired with a foreign government to overthrow their own.”
Last August, Wikileaks published a memo dispatched from the US Special Interests Section in Havana to the State Department requesting $5,000 in funding for the Ladies in White. The memo also revealed that Washington had previously funded the group. It is illegal under Cuban law for Cuban organizations to receive funding from the US government, which is not surprising given that Washington’s stated objective for decades has been the overthrow of the Cuban government and socialism. Consequently, imprisoned members of the Ladies in White cannot be considered prisoners of conscience but they could be considered political prisoners that broke the law by receiving funding from the US government.
The Ladies in White are not unique, the US government has supported and funded many anti-government groups in Cuba in its efforts to replace socialism with capitalism in that country. Consequently, the Cuban government claims that many of the political prisoners in its jails are Cubans who have received funding from a foreign government that is intent on achieving regime change. One such foreign program was conducted by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) which, under the guise of “democracy promotion,” distributed Internet and satellite communications equipment to Cuban opposition groups in direct violation of Cuban law. The project came to light when US aid worker Alan Gross, under contract to USAID, was arrested by the Cuban government in 2009. Such activities make it clear that it is the United States that has failed “to leave behind the ideological battles of the past.”
One can only imagine the outcry in the United States if a foreign government such as the Soviet Union or China were funding anti-capitalist organizations in the United States during the Cold War in an effort to bring down the US government and overthrow capitalism. Undoubtedly any American citizens receiving such funding from ideological enemies in order to engage in such activities would have been considered traitors and charged with sedition.
And one can only imagine the response if a leader of the Soviet Union had visited Washington and began publicly lecturing the US president and the American people about how flawed their capitalist system was and, during his visit, met with Soviet-funded, anti-capitalist groups in the United States that were seeking to not only overthrow the government but to bring down the country’s capitalist system. I think it’s safe to say that most Americans would be outraged. And yet Obama met with Cuban dissidents in the US Embassy while in Havana. Consequently, Obama’s visit to Cuba constitutes the 21st century equivalent of such arrogance. In fact, it’s worse, because it isn’t one superpower lecturing another, it is a superpower continuing to bully a small nation that poses no threat whatsoever to the United States.
Furthermore, according to the human rights group, The Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there are currently 60 political prisoners in Cuba. But this neglects the part of Cuba that has been under US colonial rule for more than 100 years: Guantanamo Bay. The United States currently holds 93 political prisoners in its internment camp in Guantanamo, most of whom have been held for more than 13 years without being charged with a crime or having their day in court. More than 50 of them have been cleared for release but there is nowhere for them to go because they are now, effectively, stateless. Perhaps, during his visit to Havana, Obama should have been more focused on living up to his campaign promise to remove these political prisoners from Cuba rather than lecturing the Cuban government about human rights.
The dominant human rights model under capitalism prioritizes individual rights—particularly the right to private property in order to establish corporations—to the degree that they cannot be significantly infringed upon in order to ensure that the collective—social and economic—rights of everyone in society are protected. This is why there is no right to food, housing or healthcare for citizens of the United States where, according to a 2009 Harvard University study, 45,000 people die annually due to a lack of access to the latter. But when a country such as Cuba defends the collective rights of all of its citizens with regard to access to food, housing, education and healthcare against the threats posed by those who seek to prioritize individual rights in a manner that violates the country’s socialist constitution, the Cuban government is portrayed as a major violator of human rights.