Obama-Castro encounter: More than a handshake needed to thaw the Cold War’s human rights freeze

By Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International

The Cold War might be officially over, but for many in Cuba and the USA it is as if the clocks had stopped decades ago.

In the USA, attempts to move away from the country’s outdated economic embargo have yielded little result. And in Cuba, it takes little more than typing the name of a dissident human rights defender, such as Laritza Diversent Cambara, on any online search engine to see that Cold War-era censorship and propaganda is as alive as ever.

As has been the fate of thousands of other dissidents over the last 50 years, time and time again she is publicly described as a “criminal”, an “anti-Cuba mercenary”, an “anti-revolutionary leader”, a “subversive”.

Laritza is the head of the Legal Information Centre (Centro de Información Legal, Cubalex), a group that provides independent legal and human rights assistance to all Cubans, including people unfairly imprisoned solely for peacefully expressing opinions that are at odds with those of the Castro brothers’ regime.

Being a human rights defender is not supposed to be a crime in Cuba but it might as well be.
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International

Being a human rights defender is not supposed to be a crime in Cuba but it might as well be. Laritza’s legitimate job has made her the target of a defamation campaign so vicious that in 2015 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called for precautionary measures to protect her and other members of Cubalex. Pro-government media outlets have smeared her in scores of stories accusing her of leading a counter-revolution, trying to destroy her country and even cheating on her husband.

Many others have been even less fortunate - in many cases, speaking publicly about Cuba’s human rights situation has landed activists behind bars.

According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos y Reconciliación Nacional), there were more than 1,400 arbitrary detentions of protesters and activists in January this year.

But when Barack Obama sits across the table from Raúl Castro in less than a week, he, too, has some skeletons in the closet that must now be exposed.

The USA has much to answer for in terms of protecting and respecting human rights, particularly when it comes to this rocky burgeoning relationship.

The USA has much to answer for in terms of protecting and respecting human rights, particularly when it comes to this rocky burgeoning relationship
Erika Guevara-Rosas

By stubbornly continuing to support an outdated economic embargo that has no other aim but to perpetuate the Cold War rhetoric of “them” and “us”, the USA is contributing to prevent ordinary Cubans from fully enjoying the most basic human rights to health and education. Limiting exports of medicines and other essential goods has for decades only hurt ordinary Cubans.

This damaging war rhetoric continues to take a toll, and the only losers are regular citizens. That is precisely why both the USA and Cuba desperately need to shake this mind-set if the historic handshake that will make front pages across the world is to have any real and lasting meaning beyond a fleeting piece of political PR.

But it is also imperative that both Obama and Castro take this opportunity to talk about some of the human rights issues both countries, perhaps surprisingly, have in common – and find ways to tackle them.

Let’s take prisons, for example.

There are more similarities between the US detention centre on the Naval base in Cuba’s eastern state of Guantánamo and the prisons where Cuban activists and dissidents are held than the eye can see.

Both are shrouded in secrecy. In Guantánamo, as in Cuban prisons, families are rarely provided with clear documents about why their relatives are detained. Guantánamo detainees are there without charge, while in Cuba, people held for their political opinions are often not charged and held for lengthy periods in “provisional detention”. Independent monitors and international organizations are denied any meaningful access to the facilities (Amnesty International has only been allowed to certain sectors of Guantánamo and the organization is not permitted to conduct research in prisons in Cuba).

Access to fair trials is also severely restricted in both. Guantánamo Bay’s severely flawed military commission system is so partial that what happens there can rarely be called justice, while Cuba’s judicial process forces detainees to be represented by state-approved lawyers.

And both governments insist they are acting on the right side of the law: President Obama by promising to close the detention centre by moving its detainees to the US mainland, and President Castro by his dogged insistence that everybody who is being held behind bars – including scores of peaceful dissidents – is a criminal.

There’s no question that President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba will be historic. But it will take more than a photo-op handshake to thaw the human rights freeze left in the Cold War’s wake
Erika Guevara-Rosas

There’s no question that President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba will be historic.

But it will take more than a photo-op handshake to thaw the human rights freeze left in the Cold War’s wake. If the two leaders fail to commit to concrete measures to improve their mutual human rights shortfalls, this will have been nothing but a wasted opportunity for real change on both sides of the Florida Straits.

Neither President can let that happen.