Listen to Cuba's Civil Society Leaders

Thursday, February 5, 2015
By Mark P. Lagon in The Hill:

In Cuba, the importance of listening

In his December 2014 announcement of the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba, President Obama asserted that a new approach would “create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people.” The best way for the administration to determine whether normalization actually expands political, social, and economic freedoms for Cubans is to monitor the role and voices of civil society.

Some of the most recognizable advocates of democracy and human rights, including Berta Soler, Antonio Rodiles, and Guillermo Farinas, proposed a “Hoja de Ruta” or “Roadmap” of recommendations for greater protection of human rights on January 15. While their voices may not be representative of the entire population, their approach shows that many Cubans consider the United States to be a reliable interlocutor, which can pressure the Cuban government for improvements in civil and political rights.

The roadmap emphasizes the need for three main changes: an overhaul of a repressive penal code that creates a never-ending, institutionalized system of political prisoners; creation of a genuinely independent judiciary with prosecutors and judges who can make transparent decisions; and greater attention to universal human rights like freedom of information and assembly.

Human rights advocates also emphasize that the changes need to come from within society and involve the entire population. The growing interest and attention to Cuba, which is likely to accelerate as the Summit of the Americas approaches, provide an opportunity for civil society to participate in discussions from which they have previously been excluded.

To have hope of achieving the "better future” that President Obama said might flow from the United States’ policy change, it is critical that the U.S. administration listen to and incorporate the demands of civil society into its agenda.

Assuming that greater economic investment and fewer travel restrictions will inevitably improve human rights in Cuba would a serious mistake, especially considering the recent arbitrary arrests of civil society activists, accused of fomenting a “public disturbance” when trying to peacefully assemble and foster open expression. Cuba’s government evidently felt no pressure to tolerate dissent despite the diplomatic opening.

Only by making Cuban civil society a centerpiece of U.S. policy can we know whether normalization indeed improves the lives of the Cuban people. U.S. officials, legislators and business executives visiting the island have a practical and moral obligation to support the concerns of Cuban citizens. I urge Congress as well as the administration to ask leaders of civil society about their needs and goals and, no less important, adopt those goals as those of the United States.

Lagon is president of Freedom House.