The U.S. and Cuba, human rights and hypocrisy
Mariela Castro, President Raul Castro’s daughter, at an LGBT rights march in Hamburg. By Northside, CC 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

December 10 was Human Rights Day. The occasion was celebrated around the world with a variety of events honoring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

With the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, a reactionary Republican majority in Congress and the opportunity to appoint fellow reactionaries to the courts – not only to the U.S. Supreme Court, but to more than 90 vacancies in other federal courts—all the human rights in the Universal Declaration will now be in danger. The fight to expand the concept of human rights to cover material conditions of life will be harder than ever.

Worldwide, human rights are not doing well, and the United States government, while paying lip service to the general concept, has not played much of a role in advancing the reality. Indeed, our government has often been on the wrong side in the struggle to defend even the most basic human rights. With Trump in the White House, this is likely to get worse. As he fills out his cabinet choices, we see the danger that many vulnerable population sectors will be facing in the next few years.

Yet, instead of reflecting on our own human rights situation, U.S. politicians, mass media and other opinion shapers continue to disproportionately emphasize the supposedly dreadful human rights situation in one country – socialist Cuba.

In the United States, the day became a pretext for more of the old familiar attacks on Cuba for its supposedly “terrible human rights record”. These attacks are hypocritical and, often, not even based on fact.

What are human rights?

Human Rights Day was started in 1950 by the United Nations with the purpose of supporting, worldwide, the noble goals enumerated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the time the Universal Declaration was issued, most of the world had just got through World War II, in which the Axis powers had violently crushed the most basic rights of hundreds of millions of their own citizens, and, especially, of the citizens of nations they had invaded and conquered.

For its time, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an enlightened document, but it is doubtful that its framers intended it to be the last word on the subject. For example, it does not enumerate specific rights to a material level of existence compatible with human security and dignity: The right to an adequate diet, to safe drinking water, to safe and healthy housing, to free or affordable schools and health care, or many other things. It has been a project of the left internationally to expand the original listing of human rights to include these material matters, which, taken together, amount to the right to survive in comfort and dignity.

Nor does the declaration have much to say about the specific rights of workers at their place of employment, about the rights of women, about the rights of youth, or the rights of LGBTQ people. Again, it has been organized labor along with the left worldwide which have fought for expansion of the concept of human rights in those areas.

Liberals, neoliberals, and others siding with capitalist business interests worldwide tend, on the other hand, to oppose the expansion of the concept of human rights into the realm of conditions of material life. Advances in the right to jobs and income, to minimum wage, to union representation at work, to quality schools and health care, to public transportation and to a healthy environment are things that cut into the bottom line of many corporations, so, except for an enlightened few, businesspeople and their allies use their political leverage to oppose these things, and resist the call for them to be considered “human rights”. This is particularly true here in the United States.

Is the media anti-Cuba?

We saw a preview of this in the media commentary, as well as reactions of right wing politicians such as Trump, to the death of former Cuban President Fidel Castro on November 25. The poor countries of the world, and even many people in the United States, largely considered Fidel’s departure to be a tragic loss, and responded with eloquent declarations commemorating the Cuban leader’s stand against imperialism and contributions not only to the Cuban people, but to humanity. Yet much of the corporate controlled media in the United States engaged in propagandistic attacks distinguished by factual mistakes as well as poor taste. As for the reactions of Trump and the right wing in the United States, they were nausea-inducing to anyone, like this writer, who has closely followed the saga of Cuba as a beleaguered but irrepressible socialist state for so many years.

Some of the negative publicity about Cuba was simply mendacious – a bunch of propagandistic lies. In other cases it was the result of fundamental ignorance – hack journalism for which the slogan seems to be, as ever, “don’t get it right, just get it written”. But there is another tendency revealed—the failure of such commentators to understand the vital importance of context for assessing the situation in any country.

Lack of attention to context, whether deliberate or merely negligent, causes many writers and commentators to miss crucially important dimensions of the Cuba story. Examples of relevant context here include:

*The historical context in general. Cuba was a slave colony of Spain for centuries. Slavery was only abolished in Cuba in 1886, and the country only got its independence in 1898. After formal independence, the United States continued to treat Cuba like a virtual colony. It imposed the interventionist Platt Amendment as a condition for recognizing the new country, plundered the country economically and supported one corrupt government after another.

The Cuban Revolution, which won power on January 1, 1959, had the aim of reversing the negative results of this history – the inequality, racism, corruption, exploitation and foreign domination. In setting itself these goals, the new Cuban government had the overwhelming support of the Cuban masses.

*The context of the 50 + year campaign of the United States to undermine the achievements of the Cuban revolution, overthrow the socialist government and restore the power of transnational capital in Cuba. Some speak and write as if the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba has had no impact whatsoever on the material conditions of the Cuban people. Yet from the first step—the drastic cutting the purchase of Cuban sugar by the Eisenhower administration – the goal has been “regime change” and a return to the days of compliant and corrupt politicians in Cuba. The aim of all this has been to open up Cuba once again to the same kind of penetration and exploitation by U.S. corporations that existed prior to 1959. In the last couple of years the Obama administration has moved to restore diplomatic and commercial relations with Cuba, but U.S. legislation still supports the continuation of the blockade.

*The world context, in which the majority of the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America are kept poor by the actions of transnational monopoly capital supported by the powerful and wealthy capitalist states. The standard of living in Cuba is compared to the United States (or an idealized picture thereof) whereas it should rather be compared to countries like Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica or the countries of Central America.

When this context is understood, Cuba does not come across as a ramshackle dictatorship or banana republic ruled over by power-hungry and corrupt communist “bosses”, as some would have it.

Rather, the situation of human rights compares well with that of virtually all of the other poorer countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. In many respects, the Cuban human rights record is better than that of the United States.

*Cuba expects every able adult to work, and does not guarantee cushy government jobs to all, but has in place policies that help people to find productive work when they first enter the job market and in case their existing jobs are lost or phased out by economic changes. In the United States, it is extremely difficult for new, young workers, especially if they are minorities, to find steady and secure work these days. The economic distress one can see in the coal country of Appalachia, or in the former steelworker neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago, or auto worker neighborhoods in Detroit, stand in sharp contrast to the much more humane Cuban policy.

*By law, women workers in Cuba have the right to six weeks of paid maternity leave before giving birth and 18 weeks after giving birth. Their jobs are there for them when this period expires. Fathers can also obtain leave to take care of the newborns. Women have the right to free birth control and abortions, and sex reassignment surgery is also available free from the Cuban national health system.

*For a while after the Revolution, Cuba had a repressive policy toward gay men. However, this is by now superseded by enlightened policies. Mariela Castro, President Raul Castro’s daughter, plays a leading role in fighting homophobia in Cuba. In the United States, we too have made progress on LGBT rights, but the right, especially the religious right, would like to reverse those gains, and may have their chance under Trump. In contrast, violent persecution of gay men especially still takes place in a number of countries in the world, often influenced by the agitation of the religious right.

*Racial discrimination and racist propaganda are illegal in Cuba. This has not eliminated racist (or sexist) ideas in the society. They are the product of the long period of colonial and conservative post colonial rule. The topic of societal racism and how to combat it is a major issue of discussion in Cuba, addressed by notable figures such as the Afro-Cuban sociologist Esteban Morales. So the battle against racism in Cuba is engaged, is supported by the nation’s leadership, but it has not yet been won. This contrasts sharply with the situation in the United States, which is sure to get worse under Trump, with racist diatribes online and even death threats and physical attacks against minorities, Muslims, women and LGBT people which have skyrocketed since the election.

*Cuba’s level of violent crime is low compared to neighboring countries, due to attention to the social causes of criminal behavior and a lack of tolerance for corruption on the part of police authorities, which is such a problem in the United States. This characteristic of Cuban society also contrasts sharply with many of the countries with which the United States has close alliances and trade relationships. For example, in Mexico, tens of thousands of people have disappeared or been found dead in recent years, without any resolution of their cases or justice for them or their survivors. The disappearance, more than two years ago, of 43 students from the Raul Isidro Burgos teacher training college in Ayotzinapa, state of Guerrero, has still not been explained, and at any rate is the tip of the iceberg of violence, much of it involving security officials, in our Southern neighbor and NAFTA partner. Further South, in the Central American country of Honduras, there has been a seemingly unending series of murders of dissident activists – environmentalists, indigenous, women’s, youth and LGBT leaders and others whom the country’s tiny ruling elite does not approve of. The murder of indigenous environmental activist Berta Cáceres on March 3 of this year is just the most famous of many such cases; thousands of Honduran families have in fact fled their homeland to escape the mounting violence in which drug gangs and security personnel cooperate. Similar things go on in Guatemala next door, with a special emphasis on repression of the indigenous majority. Yet the United States continues to provide the security forces in Honduras with funds which are then used to repress the country’s very poor population. Disappearances and violence like this simply do not happen in Cuba. Going beyond Cuba and looking at other U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan provides an even sharper picture of the double standard at work here.

*Many people know about Cuba’s successes in the fields of education and health care. The country has the highest level of education, by far, of all of Latin America, and a higher male and female life expectancy than the United States. The infant mortality rate in Cuba is lower than that of the United States, and Cuba has more doctors in proportion to the population than any other country in the world.

These benefits which the socialist system has brought to the Cuban people have also been a boon to many other countries in the rest of the world, especially the poorer ones. Cuban health volunteers played a key role in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and, more recently, in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, again in Haiti—in spite of the fact that Cuba was also hit by that storm. There are too many other examples of Cuban solidarity of this kind to mention here.

Cuba has stood for good things internationally. Though capitalist apologists disparage it, Cuban troops played a key role in ending the fascist apartheid regime in South Africa. Cuba has campaigned against the debt trap in which so many poor countries find themselves, and has, for several decades been a pioneer in warning the world against the dangers of climate change and global warming.

All of these things have enhanced the human rights of people not only in Cuba, but all over the planet.

So when you read negative stuff about human rights in Cuba these days, please remember: Charity begins at home, and hypocrisy is an ugly sin.



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.