To change Cuba, stick with the Burma model

In a key test of introducing political reform, Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been resoundingly elected to that nation’s parliament.  Her National League for Democracy (NLD) claims 40 of 45 elected seats across Burma, in spite of her being held under house arrest since 1989.  Some caution is warranted because the NLD will control only a tiny fraction of the 664 seats in the Burmese parliament, and the military is guaranteed a quarter of the seats. 

Even so, this Burmese election represents political reform that is leaps and bounds ahead of anything attempted by China or Vietnam, two countries that have benefited from friendly U.S. political and economic policies. Tellingly, it is Burma that has been subjected to stiff U.S. sanctions, which could not be lifted until certain conditions are met:

- the release of all political prisoners; 

- a demonstrated respect for freedom of speech, press, association, and the peaceful exercise of religion; and

- an agreement by the military government with democratic opponents, led by the NLD and Burma’s ethnic nationalities, to the transfer power to a civilian government accountable to the Burmese people through democratic elections and a rule of law.

Do these conditions sound familiar? They should. They’re very similar to those put forth for lifting U.S. sanctions applied towards the Castros’s regime by the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (LIBERTAD).

ADVERTISEMENT
For the United States, the policy challenges posed by Burma and Cuba are very similar. In Burma, the impact of U.S. sanctions was weakened and circumvented over the years by investments from regime-friendly neighbors in China, India and Thailand. In Cuba, the same thing has occurred courtesy of Venezuela, Canada and Spain. Yet none of those investments in the ruling military juntas of Burma or Cuba has eased repression, increased political dialogue or brought political reform. Sadly enough, Cuba’s dictator Raul Castro still has a long way to go to catch up with the political reforms made in Burma.

In addition, to releasing opposition leader Aung Sun Kyi from house arrest, directly engaging her in a dialogue and allowing the NLD to participate in the parliamentary elections, the Burmese military made a number of other changes. It has:  

- stepped aside in favor of a civilian government; 

- legalized independent labor unions and strikes; 

- authorized the creation of an independent National Human Rights Commission; 

- relaxed press and internet censorship laws; 

- released most political prisoners and, equally important, halted new political arrests.

In contrast, Raul Castro's military dictatorship remains completely intact, political reforms have never been on the table, repression is at its highest level in 30 years and political arrests have nearly tripled in the last year.

Meanwhile, Castro's economic "reforms" are limited to a handful of self-employment measures, mostly recycled from the 1990's with the regime retaining ownership rights. They don’t nearly approach the economic latitude allowed by its professed allies in Vietnam and China. That’s unfortunate.

Judging by history and the recent results in Burma, U.S. policy in Cuba clearly remains the right policy. In fact, I’ll happily wager with anyone that Cuba will make the transition to democracy before China or Vietnam. And when Cuba’s pro-democracy activists Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, Berta Soler and Jose Daniel Ferrer do win election to Cuba’s parliament, they will surely underscore the value of pressure. Then, the world can turn its attention to correcting the failing policies toward China and Vietnam.

Claver-Carone is a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC in Washington, D.C. and editor of CapitolHillCubans.com. He is an attorney who formerly served with the U.S. Department of the Treasury and has served on the full-time faculty of The Catholic University of America's School of Law and adjunct faculty of The George Washington University's National Law Center.