Cuba: a revolution for the oppressed?

Shouts of ‘Viva Fidel’ rang out across Havana’s Revolution Square last week, as crowds of Cubans gathered to mourn the death of their former leader Fidel Castro, who ruled the island nation for more than half a century. Yet 90 miles across the open ocean, in the district of Miami that has come to be known as Little Havana, the news of Castro’s death was met with celebration. To his supporters, Fidel Castro remains a symbol of freedom and hope for the oppressed. However, for many Cubans, there is an altogether darker legacy synonymous with the Castro regime: that of a dictatorship which continues to deny its citizens key civil, political and human rights.

On the 1st January 1959, rebel groups including the 26th of July Movement, led by Castro, overthrew the ruling Batista government at the Battle of Santa Clara. This was the culmination of multiple guerrilla offensives against the Batista regime which had taken place over the previous five years. The victory was welcomed by many in Cuban society who had suffered under a corrupt and repressive government, which profited from close relationships with criminal networks, such as the American Mafia. As the new government introduced widespread social reforms, improving levels of housing, healthcare and access to education and work for all Cubans, Castro was praised for creating a more equal society. He declared, “We have fought to give democracy and liberty to our people”– and for a while it seemed to be true.

People place tributes to Fidel Castro after his passing outside the Cuban Embassy in Buenos Aires

Tributes to Fidel Castro are placed outside the Cuban Embassy in Buenos Aires | Gaston Cuello

However, the realities of life in Castro’s Cuba paint a rather different picture of the country than that of a land of freedom. Throughout the course of the Castro regime, the Cuban government has continued to practice widespread arbitrary detention of those who oppose the existing political regime and Cuba remains a one-party state which lacks free and fair elections. Furthermore, as reported by Freedom House, independent media is illegal in the country and there is a complete lack of academic freedom. This makes it the only country in the Americas region that has been given the status of not free. The oppressive treatment of political dissenters serves to prevent critique of the regime and those who do are met with swift and harsh punishment. In 2003, 75 dissidents, largely made up of journalists and human rights activists, were rounded up and arrested in what became known as ‘Black Spring’. Many were given long prison sentences and were kept in poor squalid conditions without access to specialist medical treatment.

Several activist groups in Cuba routinely protest these human rights abuses and are also met with brutal repression by the security apparatus in the country. One such group is the Damas de Blanco, or the Ladies in White. Their ranks are made up of the wives and female relatives of political dissenters who have been jailed and they protest peacefully against the denial of political freedom in the country. In 2015, prior to President Obama’s first visit to Cuba since diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba resumed, many members of the group were gathered up and arrested preemptively to prevent any protests during the President’s visit.

There are some who argue that the death of Fidel Castro, coupled with the reinstatement of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, will lead to an improvement in human rights in the country. However, I would argue that there is little evidence to suggest that this will be the case. In reality, power in Cuba has officially been in the hands of Raul Castro, the younger brother of Fidel Castro, since 2008 due to the latter’s ill health. In 2015, the year in which the Cuban Embassy in Washington reopened, 6,200 cases of arbitrary detention were recorded from January to October. This is a significant increase from figures prior to 2012, giving little to suggest that the human rights record will improve while Raul Castro remains in power.

President Obama and President of Cuba Raúl Castro at their joint press conference in Havana, Cuba, Cuba, March 21, 2016

President Obama and President of Cuba Raúl Castro at their joint press conference in Havana, Cuba, Cuba, March 21, 2016 | White House photo by Chuck Kennedy.

The light at the end of the tunnel is that Raul Castro has said that he will stand down as leader in 2018, potentially opening the political platform to more progressive members of his party. However, if there is to be any improvement in human rights in Cuba, significant political moves must be made to end the systematic and institutionalised repression of key civil and political liberties that are a trademark of a regime that has endured for so long.

Thumbnail Image: Fidel Castro ‘near death’ in 2006 | a-birdie


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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