U.S.-Cuba Relations: It Can't Just Be a Business Deal

Thursday, June 2, 2016
By Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet and Jordan Allott in The Weekly Standard:

It Can't Just Be a Business Deal

What's next in U.S.-Cuba relations?

There has already been a vigorous debate about President Obama’s decision to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba. His recent visit to Havana inspired a wide range of feelings, with many Cubans and Cuban Americans still believing it to be a mistake.

But what's done is done. The real question now is what the U.S. government should be pressing for in its newly established dialogue with the government in Havana.

There is nothing inherent in the idea of U.S.-Cuba relations that implies Cubans' basic human rights will ever be recognized. After all, many other tyrannical governments have reasonably constructive relationships with Washington.

As Milton Friedman liked to note, economic freedom is a necessary condition for other freedoms, but it is not a sufficient condition. For example, think of the Chinese model. Economic reforms in that country have dramatically improved the lives of Chinese citizens, to be sure. But they remain unfree to voice political opinions, unfree to worship as they see fit, and subject to press and Internet censorship. And of course, they absolutely lack any say in who governs them or how.

The same could become true in a Cuba that only opens economically, without a corresponding blossoming of other human freedoms. It is not hard to imagine a Cuba where U.S. businesses merely take advantage of cheaper labor and a new consumer market. Perhaps, at best, a small group of handpicked Cubans would be able to take advantage of some of the economic freedoms—but even then only as long as they don't step out of line.

This is the Cuba that Raúl Castro seems to think he can preserve. So far, neither the Obama administration nor the international community has offered evidence to prove him wrong.

Just look at the joint press conference that Castro held with President Obama. One defining moment came when Castro reacted testily to being asked unscripted questions by a reporter—something he normally does not have to tolerate. Castro also made clear in that same press event that he does not believe Cuba even has a human rights problem. He offered the usual false denial that Cuba holds political prisoners, a line his brother Fidel used for decades. Just about every international human rights organization in the world has evidence to prove otherwise.

I (Dr. Biscet) spent the better part of the last 20 years in prison for believing in, and publicly advocating, such basic rights as the freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom to assemble, and many other fundamental rights detailed in the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights—a declaration, by the way, that Cuba has signed but is rarely pressed by the international community to live up to. When I was allowed into the general population at the maximum security prisons where I was housed, and out of solitary confinement and the physical and psychological torture that accompanied it, it was evident to me and to all the prisoners that I was just one of thousands wasting away in Cuban prisons for nonviolent political reasons.

Raúl Castro implied that there was little difference between Cuba's brutal, oppressive policies and America's supposedly inferior retirement and public health system. The absurdity of this comparison does not depend on whether that inferiority is real—Americans have a system they chose for themselves, and they can change it if there is sufficient public support. Cubans, by contrast, have no say in how their system works. That's the only comparison that matters.

President Obama and the world cannot be satisfied with a Cuba that merely opens its markets and goes no further. Moreover, the acceptance of such a Cuba would backfire. For decades, the Castro regime has blamed the poverty and other problems that it created for Cuba on exploitation by wealthy international (and specifically American) interests. For American businesses to behave in a purely self-interested manner, seeking only to exploit a new market without a corresponding opening of human freedom, would suggest that the Cuban regime was right on this point all along.

The United States should not tolerate such a halfhearted policy. It is not enough to demand economic changes while putting human rights and the rule of law on the back burner. Communist Cuba, after all, has been doing business with the rest of the world since 1959. Even American companies have sold billions of dollars in goods to Cuba for more than 20 years. If the new opening simply seeks to fulfill the demands of American industry, it will only replenish the regime's source of money, now that its support from Venezuela's oil industry has collapsed.

This would be a tragically wasted opportunity. Now is precisely the moment for Obama to demand from Castro concessions that the Cuban people really need: human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

Oscar Elias Biscet, a physician and president of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2007) and the Dr. Rainer Hildebrandt Medal for human rights. Dr. Biscet lives in Havana. Jordan Allott is a filmmaker who produced Oscar's Cuba, a 2010 documentary about the life and work of Dr. Biscet.