This article originally appeared in The Hub.
By Michael Lima and Sarah Teich, July 18, 2022
The Cuban regime is one of the oldest dictatorships in the world, and the situation is only worsening. Following the July 11, 2021, pro-democratic and peaceful protests, the Cuban regime cracked down. Repression of human rights defenders rose to unprecedented levels. Arbitrary detentions became so commonplace that Cuba now has the highest number of detained political prisoners in the Americas. The Cuban regime is collaborating with other, bigger authoritarian players including Russia and China. Yet, Canadian policy regarding Cuba has not adjusted.
Canada has a policy, generally, of standing up for human rights and democracy around the world. This should be applied in a principled manner. Standing up for human rights should not be political, partisan, or geopolitical. Canada should stand up for human rights and democracy across the board. Doing so requires that we look critically at our policy toward regimes like the one in Havana, which we have been historically soft on, and pursue approaches that better cohere with our interests and values.
One aspect of this is adjusting how the Cuban story is told in Canada. To this day, the narrative most prevalent in Canada is that the United States’ embargo is responsible for the ongoing poverty and oppression in Cuba. This narrative ignores or minimizes the responsibility of the Cuban regime itself. This view has been driven by the Canadian government’s engagement with the private sector (investors in Cuba) and other such stakeholders in its formulation of its Cuban foreign policy. Notably, this view does not include the perspectives of human rights defenders and members of the peaceful pro-democratic movement in Cuba.
We must confront reality: this narrative at the core of Canada’s policy toward Cuba is more like a myth than a view rooted in fact, and it has been weaponized for decades to justify an inert approach to abuses perpetrated by the Cuban regime.
This problematic narrative ignores the Cuban regime’s own repressive laws and practices as well as its unwillingness to adopt comprehensive economic and political reforms. There are numerous examples of this, including the banning of private participation in 124 professions such as journalism, publishing, cinematic audiovisual production, wholesale, key economic and cultural activities, and more.1 Additionally, consider the numerous repressive laws such as Decree Law 370 which censors information that is “contrary to social interest,” or Decree Law 35 which censors online content, as well as Cuba’s Criminal Code that criminalizes dissent.
These laws exist and repress, independently of any embargo. Focusing on the impacts of a U.S. embargo is a distraction when we should be focusing on the regime’s own bad policies and the policies of countries that serve to enable its oppression. It’s time for Ottawa to listen to the people of Cuba who have been making this case at great personal risk and develop an approach to Havana that reflects our values.
This starts by recognizing how out of sync Canada’s policy is when compared to the policies of our allies. Canada has lagged behind the European Union and the United States Congress in condemning repression in Cuba and asserting solidarity with human rights defenders on the island. While the European Parliament passed three resolutions condemning repression in Cuba in 2021 (two after the July 11, 2021 protests), and similar initiatives were undertaken by the U.S. Congress, Canada’s House of Commons has not passed a single resolution on the human rights situation in Cuba.
It is also long overdue that the Canadian Parliament takes a public stance calling for the release of political prisoners in Cuba. The handful of comments made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, denouncing the repression on July 11, 2021, are insufficient when compared to what has been said and done by democratic governments elsewhere in the world.
Public condemnations should also be paired with concrete actions. Canada has numerous tools at its disposal to address human rights violations, all of which should be used to stand up for human rights in Cuba.
For example, one key tool that Canada can and should leverage is its ability to impose targeted sanctions on human rights abusers using its Magnitsky Act. This Act enables Canada to impose property-blocking sanctions and visa bans on individuals with responsibility for gross human rights violations or acts of significant corruption. Canada has imposed targeted sanctions, including using its Magnitsky Act, in response to gross violations of human rights across the world, including in Nicaragua and Venezuela. However, Canada has not yet imposed targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for human rights abuses in Cuba. Canada should do so.
Canada is one of the most democratic nations in the world and prioritizes standing up for human rights and democracy across the globe. Applying these values in a principled manner means taking action in response to authoritarianism and human rights abuses in Cuba.
Sarah Teich is an international human rights lawyer and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. 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.