Last weekend, thousands of Cubans took to the streets in the largest grassroots protest the country has experienced since 1959. Their grievances are familiar — COVID-19 devastated a society already struggling with plunging tourism revenues, collapsing medical infrastructure and the government’s failure to distribute food, medicine, vaccines and services.
But protesters were not only calling for health care. Their chants of “freedom” and “down with the dictatorship” reflect decades of the Cuban people’s desire for human rights and freedoms, long denied them by the longest-surviving dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere.
In a brutal response typical of authoritarian governments, President Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel ordered security forces to the scene and incited his followers to violently oppose the peaceful protests — orders they enthusiastically carried out. At the same time, the government disrupted internet services and blocked access to social media to prevent activists from communicating and organizing online. Dozens of peaceful demonstrators have been shot, while hundreds more have been beaten, injured or arrested. These are actions straight out of the dictators’ playbook for silencing dissent among those longing for freedom.
While U.S. policy toward Latin America – and Cuba in particular – has been fraught, President BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE must stand with the people of Cuba, publicly back their calls for freedom. The United States must use diplomacy to defend democratic principles and human rights wherever they are under threat.
For nearly 50 years, Freedom House has monitored global trends in political rights and civil liberties; both have suffered major global declines in the past 15 years. Of the 35 countries comprising the Americas, Cuba consistently ranks last on both metrics, more closely resembling Bahrain and Belarus than Nicaragua or, until recently, even Venezuela. In just the past 15 years, Venezuela’s “freedom score” plummeted from 54 to 14 points on a 100-point scale, and Nicaragua’s declined from 63 to 30. Cuba, however, has hovered in the deeply unfree range of 8 to 13 points throughout this period.
In Cuba, the only country in the Americas with a rock-bottom rating of zero on freedom of press and association, human rights defenders and independent journalists are under constant government surveillance and experience frequent state-sponsored harassment and intimidation. So systematic is the regime’s campaign of repression that many journalists’ and activists’ homes have become their de facto prisons. Despite this, Cuba holds a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council and repeatedly avoids accountability for its human rights violations. This cannot continue.
An achievable first step for the Biden administration would be to work with Congress to develop a strong, consistent and unified position on this week’s events. In addition to issuing swift condemnation of the Cuban government’s violent crackdown on activists, human rights defenders and peaceful protesters, the U.S. government should use diplomatic tools such as targeted sanctions and conditioned foreign assistance to demand the release of Cuban political prisoners, an immediate end to state-sanctioned violence against peaceful protesters and the restoration of internet access to the island.
The Díaz-Canel regime wants the United States to act unilaterally so that it can use American interventionism as a wedge issue in domestic politics and as cover for further crackdowns. That’s why the Biden administration should instead rally other democracies in the hemisphere and Europe to condemn the regime’s brutal repression of free speech, freedom of assembly and labor and cultural rights. Canada, Chile, Uruguay, Colombia and Costa Rica share the United States’s interest in hemispheric stability, and European democracies have a stake in democracy’s survival globally. The Biden administration should also engage partners and allies at the United Nations and the Organization of American States in denouncing the Cuban government’s authoritarian actions.
Cuba’s political and human rights trajectory depends in large part on the international community’s willingness and ability to push for actionable, long-term accountability to international human rights standards. A coalition of Latin American and European democracies must pressure Cuba’s communist regime to enact democratic reforms, decriminalize civil society, empower the Cuban people to help shape their country’s future through engagement and dialogue and allow the United Nations, independent experts and international human rights and humanitarian organizations access to its prisons.
It’s difficult to understate the potential impact of international unity and coordination in supporting the movement for democracy in Cuba. Ultimately, however, the U.S. must retake its role as the hemisphere’s leading democracy. It can do so by upholding democratic principles at home, pressuring autocratic and authoritarian-leaning governments to enact meaningful democratic reform, supporting pro-democracy activists throughout Latin America and rallying partners and allies around the world in defense of freedom, democracy and human rights.
Gerardo Berthin is director of the Latin America and Caribbean Programs at Freedom House.