This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.
By Michael Lima and Sarah Teich, July 12, 2023
It was two years ago this week that hundreds of thousands of Cubans took to the streets in an unprecedented spectacle of civil activism, pleading for their country to transition to democracy.
Tragically, the main legacy of that heartfelt passion has been an unprecedented surge of repression. The regime arrested so many people from those July 11, 2021, demonstrations that Cuba became the largest jailer of political prisoners in the Americas. Countless prisoners of conscience still endure jailhouse torture, while society in general faces intimidation and maltreatment. The persecution of pro-democracy protesters helped trigger a massive wave of migration that, in just two years, has exceeded 400,000 people and is now considered the largest in Cuban history.
But despite its shameful repression and human rights abuses, Cuba generally faces limited international condemnation for its alliances with states like Russia and China. The European Union, which has initiated motions condemning Cuba’s repression, still continues to fund the regime. During a recent visit, the High Representative of the European Parliament disregarded pleas to take action toward liberating political prisoners.
Cuba’s dictatorship shamelessly aligns with Russia and Belarus, supporting the invasion of Ukraine. China’s spy base in Cuba, confirmed by U.S. intelligence reports, is a security threat to the free world. Cuba and China exchange repressive methods for suppressing pro-democracy movements, trampling on democratic forces in each country. Moreover, Cuba’s support for authoritarian regimes, from Venezuela to Nicaragua, hinders the region’s democratic advancement.
The United States has imposed targeted sanctions on Cuban officials and entities, but meetings with the Cuban Interior Ministry have inadvertently legitimized repression. Some U.S. political sectors support lifting economic sanctions altogether, disregarding core democratic principles of freeing political prisoners and holding free and fair elections.
Canada’s foreign policy, meanwhile, is inconsistent where Cuba is concerned. While it imposes targeted sanctions on officials from more than 20 dictatorships worldwide, Ottawa has failed to hold Cuban officials accountable for crimes committed during the July 11, 2021, repression. In response to formal requests from Democratic Spaces and Cuba Decide, Global Affairs should be imposing strong, effective sanctions on the most egregious human rights violators within Cuba’s repressive apparatus.
Instead, Ottawa‘s approach seems to prioritize trade over democracy and human rights. The Canadian news media’s limited coverage of the island’s repression leaves travellers and investors ill-informed about the moral implications of spending money in Cuba, which ultimately helps secure the dictatorship. The Canadian government and private sector help directly sustain the regime through tourism, channelling large revenues into GAESA, the Cuban military conglomerate that controls the vacation industry and other lucrative sectors of the economy.
Ottawa could have a greater impact if it addressed Cuba’s human rights violations publicly rather than in closed-door meetings with regime officials, or by opening its Havana embassy to provide support and access to human rights activists and relatives of political prisoners.
It is time Canada listened to the voices of the Cuban people. Cuba requires more than just humanitarian aid in the form of medicine and food. The greatest humanitarian tragedy faced by Cubans is the unjust imprisonment of thousands for exercising their fundamental human rights. Canada should be leading international efforts to secure the immediate release of political prisoners, proclaiming its own moral ground through motions in Parliament that demand the liberation of political prisoners.
Until now, it has been the Cuban people who have directly made the dictatorship pay the highest political cost. When those huge throngs took to the streets in 2021, they effectively dismantled more than six decades of myth-making propaganda about popular support for the regime.
The Cuban people’s cry for freedom has not received the support it deserves from Canada or the international community. Human rights organizations have been the Cuban people’s strongest allies in their efforts to hold the regime accountable. An example is last month’s ground-breaking verdict by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, firmly assigning responsibility to the Cuban dictatorship for the assassination of pro-democracy leaders Oswaldo Paya and Harold Cepero over a decade ago.
Action is needed now. Change requires sustained pressure. The Cuban people’s unwavering commitment to freedom and their sacrifices are undeniable. Holding the regime accountable through targeted sanctions, exerting pressure to release all political prisoners and advocating for the rights of the Cuban people are of utmost importance. The world is watching; we cannot allow silence and inaction to prevail.
Michael Lima is the founder of Democratic Spaces. Sarah Teich is an international human rights lawyer and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.