Ending the other blockade against Cuba

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 30, 2014


The enthusiasm sparked by the announcement that Cuba and the United States will normalize diplomatic relations has strengthened hopes that the US embargo against the island will soon come to an end.


Though there are good reasons to be cautious about how quickly relations can be normalized, the announcement that a new chapter in Cuban-US relations has opened has received widespread praise in Latin America. But Latin American governments should complement their celebration with the decision to put an end to their own embargo on denouncing human rights violations in Cuba. Precisely because the US will no longer apply a heavy-handed and Cold-War-inspired approach to the Cuban government, Latin American countries now need to step up their proactive and constructive involvement in promoting respect for human rights on the island.


As the US-enforced embargo makes it illegal for many non-US companies to trade with the Cuba, the island’s Communist regime often refers to the embargo as a “blockade” against Cuba. Though the economic sanctions imposed by Washington more than five decades ago have hindered the economic development of the island, the fact that Cuba has been able to trade with other governments calls into question the claim that the US has set up an effective policy against the island. Yet, in the eyes of many Latin Americans, the embargo works as a blockade, given the imbalance in economic and military power between Washington and Havana.


To be sure, the aggressive rhetoric that has characterized US-Cuban relations relates to a Cold War mentality, a logic that justified dividing the world into good and evil. From the viewpoint of Washington, any country that sided with the Soviet Union — the “evil empire,” in the words of Ronald Reagan — was perceived as an enemy and as a potential threat. In Latin America, the US was often seen as responsible for evil actions committed by governments that allied with Washington. Since the US supported military regimes in the name of protecting democracy against Communist threat, many Latin Americans questioned the US position in favour of democratic rule and the protection of human rights.


During the Cold War years, human rights violations committed by regimes that were friendly to the US were systematically overlooked by Washington. Yet, the US took a strong and principled stand against the Cuban government for violating human rights. As a result of that US double-standard, many Latin Americans who were friendly to the goals of the Cuban revolution chose to overlook systematic human rights violations committed by the Castro regime. As the protection of human rights became a propaganda weapon of the Cold War, denouncing human rights violations in Cuba was seen as being instrumental to US interests in the region.


With the end of the Cold War, democracy became the only game in town in Latin America. All countries in the region experienced transitions to democratic rule. Though democracy has not fully consolidated everywhere — and in several countries the quality of democracy has worsened in recent years — the practice of choosing leaders through democratic elections became the norm everywhere. Except in Cuba.

With democracy, the protection of human rights also became a widely accepted principle in the region. In many countries that experienced an authoritarian past, righting the wrongs of the past has emerged as a guiding principle to promote respect for human rights. However, neither the logic of elections as a necessary condition for countries to be considered full-members of the international community nor the respect and protection of human rights as a condition for legitimacy are applied to the Cuban government by other democratically-elected governments in the region. The way that several Latin American governments act seems to indicate that since the Cuban revolution was so unfairly targeted by the US during the Cold War (and even today, with the embargo still in place), the authoritarian government of the island has a justification to oppose competitive elections and has a free-pass to violate human rights. As if being a victim of US imperialism (a claim that can be challenged on factual grounds) is a justification for violating human rights, many Latin American nations fail to hold Cuba to the same high standards that they apply to those who committed wrongdoings in their home countries.


Now that the US has decided to change its stance, many people in Latin America feel that the Cold War mentality has finally been put to rest. As the end of the US embargo nears, countries should put an end to their own embargo on denouncing human rights violations regularly committed by the Cuban government.


After all, leaving the Cold War mentality behind also requires Latin American democracies to live up to their declared commitment to protecting human rights and promote democracy in all the region — even in Cuba.