“What Political Prisoners?” – Freedom of Speech in Cuba


On March 20, 2016, history witnessed the first sitting U.S. President’s visit to Cuba since the Cold War.[1] Even before landing in Cuba, President Obama greeted the Cuban people with a warm tweet, reading: “¿Que bolá Cuba?” However, only 5% of the Cuban population has access to the Internet, which is heavily regulated,[2] let alone to Twitter.

It is undeniable that the embargo on Cuba did not prevent human rights violations and did not improve freedom of speech. [3] Instead, the embargo isolated Cuba from the rest of the world, separated many families, and diminished Cubans’ quality of life. And after all of these years, the Castros are still running the country.[4]

The United States’ new approach will likely represent economic improvement for Cuban business and will open Cuba to the world.[5] Many families will be reunited and, perhaps, the social wounds caused by the revolution and the embargo may heal in the future. Cuban dissidents are likely to maintain status quo, however, as they continue to be imprisoned and repressed, even moments before President Obama’s visit to Havana.

What is the benefit of the United States’ new approach regarding human rights violations in Cuba? President Obama stated very clearly that he would continue actions to improve freedom of speech[6] and continue voicing his concerns about repression of dissidents in Cuba.[7] However, speaking loudly against repression of freedom of speech and human rights violations has not been effective in the past. Just look at Venezuela, a country that has long standing commercial relations with the United States: President Obama voiced his concerns about imprisonment of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez,[8] and even issued an executive order sanctioning personalities of the Venezuelan government for human rights violations.[9] Regardless, Lopez has remained imprisoned since 2014 and the Venezuelan government continues to repress the voice of opposition leaders and protesters.[10] Why will it be different with Cuba?

Meeting leaders of Cuban dissidence and acknowledging their claims is, at a minimum, a starting point. However, as Antonio Rodiles warned, United States’ new approach may cause more repression.[11] The reality is that Cuban government continues silencing the dissidents and violating their freedom of speech.[12] In fact, short-term arbitrary arrests have increased in recent years,[13] and beating, acts of public shaming, and other repressive tactics usually accompany these arrests.[14] Just hours before President Obama’s visit, Cuban police detained fifty demonstrators protesting with the Ladies in White.[15] These short-term arrests and detentions intend to terrorize the dissidents to silence their voice; effectively, they have the same purpose of long-term imprisonment.

What is clear is that Castro’s attitude towards human rights violations and repression of freedom of speech is not likely to change in the near future without further involvement of the United States beyond acknowledging the dissidence, voicing concerns, and possibly lifting the embargo. This much is abundantly clear upon watching Raul Castro address a question about political prisoners last week; in his view, there are no political prisoners in Cuba.[16]

[1] The White House, Charting a New Course on Cuba: The Progress We’ve Made Since 2014, (last visited March 23, 2016), https://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/foreign-policy/cuba.

[2] Karrie Kahn, Internet Access Expands In Cuba — For Those Who Can Afford It, (Oct. 6, 2015), http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2015/10/06/445998527/internet-access-expands-in-cuba-for-those-who-can-afford-it.

[3] See e.g. Human Rights Watch, World Report 2016. Cuba Events of 2015, (last visited March 23, 2016), https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2016/country-chapters/cuba.

[4] See The White House, supra note 1.

[5] Manuel Supervielle, Why should Obama visit Cuba? (March 21, 2016), http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/20/opinions/obama-cuba-supervielle/index.html.

[6] See The White House, supra note 1.

[7] Tracy Wilkinson, What you need to know about the Cuban dissidents who met with Obama, Los Angeles Times, (March 22, 2016), http://www.latimes.com/world/mexico-americas/la-fg-cuban-dissidents-obama-20160322-htmlstory.html.

[8] See The White House Office of the Press Secretary, Remarks by the President at Clinton Global Initiative, (Sept.23, 2014), https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/23/remarks-president-clinton-global-initiative.

[9] See The White House Office of the Press Secretary, FACT SHEET: Venezuela Executive Order, (March 9, 2015), https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/09/fact-sheet-venezuela-executive-order.

[10] See Human Rights Watch, Punished for Protesting Rights Violations in Venezuela’s Streets, Detention Centers,and Justice System, (May 2014), https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/05/05/punished-protesting/rights-violations-venezuelas-streets-detention-centers-and; see also Sibylla Brodzinsky, Venezuela opposition leader Leopoldo López jailed for nearly 14 years, The Guardian, (Sept. 10, 2015), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/11/venezuela-opposition-leader-leopoldo-lopez-sentenced-to-14-years-in-jail.

[11] See Wilkinson, supra note 3.

[12] Human Rights Watch, supra note 3.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Ladies in White is a group of women formed in 2003 by spouses, daughters, sisters, and other relatives of political prisoners of the Castros’ government. This group has received international recognition for its labor in awareness of the freedom of speech and human rights situation in Cuba, and it is usually target of repression by Cuban authorities. See Las Damas de Blanco, (last visited March 25, 2016), http://www.damasdeblanco.com/damas_blanco/damas_blanco.asp; Mimi Whitefield, Lesley Clark and Jim Wyss, Cuba’s Raúl Castro: What political prisoners? Miami Herald, (March 21, 2016), http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article67353852.html.

[16] See id. (“Give me the list of political prisoners,” Castro, visibly annoyed, told reporters. “If those prisoners exist, they will be out before nightfall,”).

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