The communist dictator talks, and we’re all supposed to chuckle and dismiss it. Just as during the Cold War, we all know better. But in reality, much of what Cuban president Raul Castro said during the recent, highly-publicized Obama-Castro press conference is true.
Castro is being panned in the American media for backhandedly denying Cuba has any political prisoners. When Andrea Mitchell of NBC asked him about it, he responded, "What political prisoners? Give me a name or names…[and] they will be released before tonight ends.”
The Cuban government harasses its opponents and arrests them for short periods of time, and continued to do so during Obama’s visit. However, Amnesty International recently stated that it cannot identify any current prisoners of conscience in Cuba.
It’s very possible that there are political prisoners that human rights groups don’t know about, but there aren’t many. Certainly Cuba is no beacon of freedom, but neither is it the Latin gulag Americans often claim it is.
Castro pressed Obama on returning “the territory illegally occupied by Guantanamo Naval Base.” It’s doubtful Castro will get what he wants any time soon, but he is correct in demanding this.
The US first seized Guantanamo during the Spanish-American War. Afterward, the US refused to withdraw its army from Cuba unless Cuba signed the Platt Amendment, which greatly limited Cuba’s sovereignty and gave the US the right to buy or lease land for a military base. Under US pressure, Cuba gave America Guantanamo the next year.
In 1934 a new treaty on Guantanamo was signed by America’s friend Fulgencio Batista and his associates, who had seized power in a coup. Under the treaty, which leased out the 45 square miles on an open-ended basis, Cuba received the princely sum of $4,085 a year. This was up from the $2,000 per year it had been receiving since 1902.
If, for example, during the Cold War the Soviet-dominated government of Hungary–a puppet regime installed by the USSR–had handed a chunk of Hungarian territory to the Soviet Union to use as a Soviet military base, would the US now consider this forced concession to be legitimate? Is it legitimate to occupy in perpetuity foreign territory against the oft-stated desires of the host country?
At the conference, Castro strongly and correctly condemned America’s unique and punishing trade embargo on Cuba. Over the past quarter century the United Nations has annually passed a resolution condemning it by overwhelming vote. In recent years, the only nation to side with the US against the resolution has been Israel.
Castro condemned America’s “political manipulation and double standards in the approach to human rights.” “Double standards” is right. The US has a ghastly record of supporting and arming murderous dictatorships in Latin America. In fact, during the 1970s and 1980s there were few Latin American countries that did not have a pro-American military dictatorship.
Elsewhere, brutal dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Pakistan, and numerous others had or have similarly cozy relationships with the US. None of these regimes have had to endure the punitive actions nor the relentless hypocritical moralizing that the US has visited upon Cuba.
Castro didn’t bother to deny that Cuba’s dictatorship restricts freedom of expression and tightly controls the media, instead correctly noting that no country complies with all rights, and “some countries comply [with] some rights, other[s] comply [with] others. And we are among these countries.”
Castro also claimed that there are areas in which Cuban human rights are better than those in the US, including health care, education, and women’s equality. Adjusting for the fact that America is the world’s wealthiest nation and Cuba is a small underdeveloped country with few natural resources, Castro is correct. Obama, to his credit, partially acknowledged this.
For decades the US discussion of Cuba has been rooted in a Cold War mentality which exaggerates the regime’s faults, while ignoring its success in raising up Cuba’s poor. Standing next to Obama in front of the world media, Castro actually told about as much of the truth as anyone could reasonably expect. Americans, raised on a steady diet of anti-communist half-truths, couldn't hear him.
Note: in the wake of the July 2021 widespread demonstrations in Cuba, the government sentenced numerous people to prison terms in violation of what should be their freedom of expression and freedom to demonstrate. This column, written in 2016, accurately described Cuba’s government’s policies towards demonstrators as they were at that time.
- Sacks Media Content3/23/16