More Questions Than Answers at Cuba Hearings

Saturday, February 7, 2015
By Evan Moore of The Foreign Policy Initiative:

More Questions Than Answers at Cuba Hearings

The American people, Congress, and even senior administration officials were surprised by President Obama’s December 17 change of policy in U.S.-Cuba relations.  Concurrent with a prisoner swap that secured the release of former USAID contractor Alan Gross, President Obama announced that Washington would begin to normalize relations with Havana.  In hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) this week, administration officials and Cuban democracy activists discussed the uncertainties surrounding the new policy and the importance of a renewed push for democratic change in Cuba.

The Need for Transparency

During a November 19 hearing to consider Antony Blinken’s nomination to be Deputy Secretary of State, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked, “Do you anticipate, during the rest of the president’s term, that there will be any unilateral change” to Cuba policy absent democratic reforms?  Blinken responded, “Anything that in the future might be done on Cuba would be done in full consultation” with Congress.  Blinken later apologized for misrepresenting the administration’s policy, but the fact remains that Congress expects greater transparency on this issue.

At this week’s hearings, it was clear that the State Department’s senior policymakers were also out of the loop.  Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “no one in my bureau” was involved in negotiations, which were led “to the best of my knowledge” by National Security Council staffers Ben Rhodes and Ricardo Zuniga.

Similarly, Ms. Rosa Maria Payá, a human rights activist and the daughter of the slain dissident Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, told senators that the new policy can succeed only if “it is addressed with responsibility and with transparency, not more secrets,” and if the voice of Cuban citizens are heard during future negotiations.

Prioritize Human Rights in Cuba

As the State Department noted in its most recent human rights report on Cuba, the Castro regime uses “threats, extrajudicial physical violence, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions” to maintain its rule.  The Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reported last month that there were 8,899 short-term detentions of dissidents and activists in 2014.  That is 2,000 more than the previous year and four times as many as in 2010.

Although 53 political prisoners were released as part of the agreement between the Obama administration and the Castro regime, those individuals remain under conditions that could easily return them to prison—and two have already been re-arrested.  As Mrs. Paya told the panel, “The regime turns political prisoners into pieces to be exchanged, because they can catch-and-release at will more political prisoners.”

Tom Malinowski, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, told senators that “The release of these prisoners does not change the fundamental nature of a state that tries to stifle everything it does not control.” He added that “We have no illusions about the current leadership’s desire to keep things just as they are.”  Going forward, the administration’s actions should reflect Mr. Malinowski’s recognition that “Human rights and the empowerment of the Cuban people must be the bedrock of our new policy towards Cuba, and it will be.”

Maintaining Pressure on the Castro Regime

In December, President Obama announced that this administration was “removing limits on remittances that support humanitarian projects, the Cuban people, and the emerging Cuban private sector.”  Miriam Leiva, a Cuban human rights activist, told senators that these remittances have helped open new “very small” businesses and lay the “seed for a future bigger business” by establishing financial independence from the regime.

But the emergence of new businesses alone will not free Cuba from the grip of the regime.  As Malinoswki said, “no country ever became a democracy simply because of trade or tourists.”  Indeed, as Paya noted, Cuban “entrepreneurs cannot be a factor to foster democracy because their existence as ‘private’ owners depends on their submission to the government.  There cannot be free markets where there are no free persons.”  She added, “With mojitos and Cuba Libres we’re not going to free our island.”

Lawmakers were even more critical of the administration’s decision to increase business between the United States and Cuba.  Congressman Albio Sires (D-NJ), the ranking member on HFAC’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, noted that because 85 percent of Cuban businesses are run by the military, “the people that are fighting for liberty and fighting for democracy on the island are basically left out” of the President’s new approach.  HFAC Chairman Ed Royce warned that “the Administration may have given a 50-year-old failed regime a new lease on life to continue its repression at home.”

Building a Coalition for Democratic Change in Cuba

Ms. Jacobson told skeptical House members that the new Cuba policy will enable the United States to “work more effectively with” Latin American and European countries to bring about change in Cuba.  Manuel Cuesta Morúa, a Cuban civil society leader, concurred, saying the administration’s policy shift “frames the debate over human rights in Cuba on the basis of a conflict about values, not a conflict among states.”

However, the argument that the U.S. embargo was “such an irritant” to Latin American and European countries so as to prevent them from speaking out against Havana’s human rights abuses is thin.  As Malinowski said, “To the extent that they used the embargo and our policy as an excuse for being silent about human rights abuses in Cuba, that was not justified.”  This is because “none of this, Cuba’s repression, its poverty, its isolation, is the fault of the United States or of the embargo. The responsibility lies with the Cuban government, period.”

Mr. Malinowski is right, and there is no excuse for other countries to refrain from condemning the Castro regime for its abuses.  The Obama administration should call on Latin American and European partners to insist that the Castro regime stop abusing human rights and immediately begin a process of democratization.


At this juncture, much remains uncertain about the President’s new Cuba policy.  SFRC Ranking Member Robert Menendez (D-NJ) lamented this week that “While it may have been done with the best of intentions, in my view we’ve compromised bedrock principles for virtually no concessions” from Cuba. Berta Soler, the President of Cuban Ladies in White, warned “You can’t do business with a tyrant. It just doesn’t work that way.” Nonetheless, the administration is reportedly seeking to open an embassy in Havana as soon as April, and is pressing to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism by June.

Moving forward, it is imperative that the Obama administration view its Cuba policy through the lens of helping the Cuban people win their freedom.  What’s more, President Obama should remember the pledge he made during the 2008 campaign that “if a post-Fidel government begins opening Cuba to democratic change, frees political prisoners and holds elections, the United States is prepared to take steps to normalize relations and ease the embargo that has governed relations between our countries for the last five decades.”  Just as Mr. Obama then pledged, any further U.S. steps should be made only after the Cuban regime takes real and irreversible actions to democratize.