The most significant human rights event in Cuba in the past months was the visit of Pope John Paul II in late January. While the pontiff's visit forced the Cuban government to make some concessions, there has been a lack of genuine human rights reform in Cuba. During the pontiff's stay, the Cuban government permitted large outdoor religious celebrations and broadcast these events uncensored on state-controlled radio and television. Since his visit, Cuba has freed over eighty political prisoners. Twelve of those recently released were forced to leave the island--a violation of the fundamental right of those detainees to remain in their own country.
Unfortunately, as Cuba released some political prisoners, it simultaneously restricted the fundamental freedoms of other Cubans. On February 13, for example, a Santa Clara tribunal sentenced Cecilio Monteagudo Sánchez, a leader of the Democratic Solidarity Party, to four years in prison for "enemy propaganda." He was tried on the basis of having drafted, but not distributed or published, a document calling for abstention from local elections. This and other recent cases starkly demonstrated Cuba's continued willingness to repress peaceful dissidents and journalists. Several of the political prisoners who were released fear that they may face prosecution and a return to prison if they express their political viewpoints.
The U.S. trade embargo has neither brought about the overthrow of the repressive Cuban government nor encouraged concrete steps toward democracy and human rights. What's more, it has discouraged the region's democratic governments from criticizing Castro, since they fear being seen as joining Washington's bullying tactics. "The U.S. embargo is not a principled human rights policy, and has failed to improve human rights in Cuba," said José Miguel Vivanco, the executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "Worse still, the embargo has made enemies of all Washington's potential allies. It has given governments world-wide an excuse to remain silent as Mr. Castro locks up nonviolent dissidents in horrendous conditions for such crimes as 'illegal printing,'" said Vivanco.
Human Rights Watch believes that Cuba should not be excluded from the Second Summit of the Americas, which would provide an excellent forum for discussing human rights with President Fidel Castro, since decades of isolation have failed to promote democracy and respect for human rights on the island. Rather, hemispheric leaders should openly discuss with President Castro the country's lack of democratic progress. Continued human rights abuses in Cuba, like those in other regional countries, should be part of the hemisphere's human rights agenda.
Question for President Clinton: You have said that the U.S. embargo has proven ineffective since its imposition almost forty years ago, yet you signed the Helms-Burton legislation that strengthened it considerably and removed presidential control over lifting it. Beyond the recent modifications to U.S. policies toward Cuba, what additional policy shifts will help improve the Cuban human rights situation?