President Donald Trump recently announced a partial reversal of Obama’s initiative to normalize United States’ relations with Cuba. President Obama’s detente in 2014 was an encouraging sign: the new policy involved the re-opening of the American embassy, lifted travel restrictions, and promised an eventual removal of the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Trump has reintroduced travel restrictions on cultural and educational visits by Americans, prohibited business dealings with Cuba’s military or intelligence services, and declared that the trade embargo will remain in place. In Trump’s words, his Cuba policy will alleviate the “tremendous repression” endured by Cubans. In an effort to bring about “a free Cuba,” the Trump administration has demanded that Cuban leaders put “an end to the abuse of dissidents, release the political prisoners, stop jailing innocent people, open [themselves] to political and economic freedoms, [and] return the fugitives from American justice”. Trump’s strategy to bring about change in Cuba, shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Cuba’s history and social development since the Revolution.
Cuba’s Claim on Democracy
Cuba and the U.S. have diametrically opposed concepts of the meaning of democracy and of what types of human rights the state ought to promote and protect. Both countries have important democratic accomplishments and both have some very serious deficits. For each, the deficits in the other constitute a violation of fundamental democratic principles. A series of lectures given by Canada’s most internationally renowned political scientist, C.B. Macpherson (published in 1965 as The Real World of Democracy) provides important insight into the depth of these differences. Macpherson points out that the original and earliest concept of democracy (derived from the political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau) involves the political dominance of the lower classes, a commitment to human dignity for all, socio-economic equality, and the primacy of the whole nation over particular interests. This concept of democracy does not involve political freedoms, or protection of private property. In fact, the practitioners of this form of democracy tend to view political rights as impinging on the goal of equality. This illiberal form of democracy does, however, involve equality of access to essential social services, such as education, health care, and shelter.
Cuba’s accomplishments in social welfare are widely recognized, particularly outside of the United States, while its violations of civil liberties and one-party authoritarian rule are the focus of concern among U.S. officials and the mainstream media. Indeed, much of the world has accepted that freedom from various forms of deprivation, addressed through equitable access to education and health care, are essential human rights. Such rights are embodied in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Notably, the notion that democracy is primarily about liberal democratic rights and procedures is not shared by much of the Latin American public, who see democracy as improved social outcomes.
The United State’s Democratic Shortfall
Ideally, democracy should uphold political and social rights; all are essential to any meaningful notion of freedom. Social rights are essential to political rights because they provide the equality of conditions under which citizens can exercise those political rights. Poorly educated, unhealthy, and homeless people are unlikely to exercise their vote, or even care about politics. Social rights provide the level playing field for equality of opportunity—one of the highly prized values of liberal democracies. Some liberal democracies, particularly those in northern Europe, do a good job of providing for both political/civil and social rights. Among the western liberal democracies, however, the United States incorporates social rights the least. U.S. democracy places heavy emphasis on the importance of market freedom. It values the freedom to choose above all else, particularly the freedom to enter the competition; but it does not ensure anything like an even playing field for citizens. Its profound socio-economic inequality (the highest among western liberal democracies) derives from its limited vision of human rights and narrow conceptualization of democracy. The United States does not have political prisoners. It has, however, criminalized deprivation as demonstrated by the high proportion of its prison population constituted by its poor black and Hispanic population.
Entrenched Irreconcilable Differences
While the U.S. has important democratic shortcomings, Cuba’s democratic deficits are very serious. According to the most recent Human Rights Watch Report, the Cuban government continues to punish human rights activists, journalists, and others through arbitrary arrests, detention, beatings, and harassment. Dozens of political opponents remain incarcerated. There is also tight control of the media. A transition to a more liberal form democracy, however, is highly unlikely, especially in the face of U.S. pressure to do so because this pressure gives the Cuban regime an excuse to maintain its tight political control. Moreover, such a transition does not appear to be a high priority among members of the Cuban public. While the difficult situation faced by Cuban dissidents is widely discussed in the North American media, their plight does not seem to be a burning one inside Cuba. There is not much evidence that the Cuban public sees their country as a repressive and undemocratic one. When asked by a journalist whether they thought their country was democratic, Cubans, reflecting their non-liberal understanding of the concept of democracy, point to life-saving access to health care and access to higher education. Raúl Castro’s response to former President Obama’s criticism of Cuba’s human rights record likely resonated with most of the Cuban public at the time. Castro said of the United States: “we find it inconceivable that a government does not defend and ensure the right to healthcare, education, social security, food provision, and development.
After more than 50 years of revolutionary socialism, the norms governing Cuban society are not likely to change much. Nor is the U.S likely to become more flexible in its attitude toward Cuba. The stepped-up pressure from the Trump administration for the recovery of U.S. business and individual assets expropriated by the Cuban government, will reinforce resistance to change within Cuba. Perhaps after the Trump era has ended, Cuba will evolve toward a polity that provides greater protection for political rights. However, Cuba is very unlikely to abandon its commitment to social rights. It is unlikely to embrace U.S. style free market capitalism and so will always be seen by its neighbour to the north as suffering from a deficit of democratic freedom. Hence, even in the long-term, Cuban/U.S. relations will be fraught with tension.