This article originally appeared in The Hub.
By Michael Lima and Sarah Teich, July 11, 2022
Many Canadians are familiar with the poor human rights records of countries like Russia and China. But few are familiar with the poor human rights record of Cuba—whose government is one of the oldest dictatorships in the world today.
Today, on the anniversary of one of the most brutal crackdowns in recent Cuban history, we owe it to ourselves to learn about this autocracy and to reflect on how Canada can best stand up for democracy and human rights in Cuba.
The Cuban people’s pursuit of freedom and democracy goes back to at least March 1952, when the country’s constitutional order broke down due to a military coup that ended nearly 12 years of constitutional government. Then when Fidel Castro seized power on January 1, 1959, he betrayed the ideals of his generation, ultimately prohibiting free elections altogether. He established a Soviet-style one-party dictatorship that differed drastically from the individual freedoms and checks and balances guaranteed in the 1940 Constitution—a constitution which his regime had initially promised to restore.
In the more than six decades that have followed, Cubans raising their voices for democratic change and human rights have been marginalized, imprisoned, or forced into exile.
One year ago today, on July 11, 2021, the people of Cuba came together in one of the largest peaceful protests in recent Cuban history. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans took to the streets to demand freedom and democracy. The massive demonstrations dismantled decades of myths and propaganda of alleged popular support for the regime.
With the authoritarian hold on power imperiled, the Cuban regime cracked down. Repression in Cuba following the July 11 protests rose to unprecedented levels, with so many arbitrary arrests that the Cuban regime today is the leading jailer of political prisoners in the Americas. Today, over 1,000 people, including children, are behind bars for exercising fundamental rights.
Canadians should raise awareness of this. And as a human rights leader on the world stage, Canada can and should take the lead in standing up for human rights and democracy in Cuba.
At both the Democracy Summit in December 2021 and the Third Global Media Freedom Coalition in February 2022, Canada committed to supporting journalists globally. Canada should speak up against Cuba’s persecution of independent journalists.
Canada has imposed targeted sanctions in response to gross violations of human rights across the world, including in Belarus, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Canada along with like-minded partners can make a difference by imposing coordinated targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for similar abuses in Cuba. To date, Canada has yet to sanction any officials or entities related to human rights violations in Cuba.
Last year, Canada created an international coalition with 57 countries to denounce state-sponsored arbitrary detentions. Canada can and should take the lead in pressing for the release of political prisoners and all those arbitrarily detained in Cuba. The regime in Cuba detained so many following the July 11 protests that they now have more individuals arbitrarily detained than in Nicaragua and Venezuela combined.
This repression is aided by continued Canadian tourism and investment in Cuba. The Cuban military conglomerate GAESA increases its revenues by continued tourism and investment and then uses the funds to crack down on civil society. Canadian companies operating in Cuba should be urged to meet with human rights defenders on the island to assess how their investments contribute to human rights violations.
Canada has a proud tradition of defending democracy across the globe and supporting human rights defenders. These are values that Canadians share and prioritize. As the people of Cuba continue suffering under an oppressive dictatorship, Canadians should be standing up for their freedom. As a matter of justice, we owe it to the people with whom we claim to be friends.
Michael Lima is a researcher and director of Democratic Spaces, an NGO seeking solidarity in Canada with human rights defenders and civil society in Cuba. He holds an MA in Latin American history from the University of Toronto. Sarah Teich is an international human rights lawyer and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.