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Human Rights Watch's way forward

2007 Jose Goitia/The New York Times/Redux Pictures

According to two of Human Rights Watch’s top Latin America experts, the way forward in the largely stalemated US-Cuba relationship is for the Obama administration to drop pursuit of the regime change clauses of Helms-Burton in favor of a one-issue focus on human rights, then team with international partners to push for one simple goal that Washington should guarantee would finally pull down the U.S. embargo if implemented: the release of all dissident prisoners in Cuba.

So why is this particular path “the way forward”? Because, they argue rather convincingly, as long as Washington continues to push for regime change (instead of human rights observance), the United States will continue to look like Goliath, and Cuba will continue to look like David to the rest of the world.

Cuba is the clear underdog because the relatively tiny island has indeed, for five decades, faced an explicit threat to its national sovereignty coming from the United States, as Havana is quick to report. The Helms-Burton law prohibits the president from lifting trade restrictions until Cuba has legalized political activity and made a commitment to free and fair elections, but also prohibits lifting the embargo as long as Fidel and Raúl Castro remain in office. Simply put, it requires that Cubans be free to choose their leaders, but bars them from choosing the Castros, and in this way it is by definition a program to promote not only democracy but also regime change.

Meanwhile, on the island the criminal code explicitly outlaws “actions designed to support, facilitate, or collaborate with the objectives of the ‘Helms-Burton Law.'” Since promoting democratic rule is a central objective of Helms-Burton, any action taken toward that end can therefore be considered a crime. So advocating for democratic privileges—like human rights monitoring, labor organizing, and establishing independent libraries—is equated with US-sponsored regime change.

And so on the island, to criticize the Castros is to align oneself with Cuba’s enemies abroad and be taken as a dangerous counterrevolutionary. Reports like that of Human Rights Watch are dismissed by the government as part of a grand effort to “trample” Cuba’s “right to free self-determination and sovereign equality.” And for neighbors and other Latin American countries, to criticize Cuba is to side with the United States against Cuba—something few hemispheric leaders will be willing to do with the detested embargo still in place.

(Image credit: 2007 Jose Goitia/The New York Times/Redux Pictures)



Melissa Lockhart Fortner

Melissa Lockhart Fortner is Senior External Affairs Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, having served previously as Senior Programs Officer for the Council. From 2007-2009, she held a research position at the University of Southern California (USC) School of International Relations, where she closely followed economic and political developments in Mexico and in Cuba, and analyzed broader Latin American trends. Her research considered the rise and relative successes of Latin American multinationals (multilatinas); economic, social and political changes in Central America since the civil wars in the region; and Wal-Mart’s role in Latin America, among other topics. Melissa is a graduate of Pomona College, and currently resides in Pasadena, California, with her husband, Jeff Fortner.

Follow her on Twitter @LockhartFortner.