The ongoing pro-democracy protests in Cuba and the regime’s attempts to quash them are the latest examples of two conflicting trends in the state of democracy around the world: ordinary people’s desire for freedom is growing stronger as authoritarians are becoming more willing to crush their aspirations with brutality.
Authoritarians currently have the edge in the competition between freedom and repression. Democracy has been declining worldwide for 15 consecutive years, and the pattern is likely to continue unless the United States and its democratic partners take action to support basic rights, as the Biden administration has repeatedly pledged to do. Cuba would be a good place to start.
On July 11, thousands of Cubans peacefully took to the streets in the country’s largest protests in more than 60 years. They sought not only to convey their exasperation with the devastating impact of COVID-19 on a society already struggling with plummeting tourism revenue, failing hospital systems, and deteriorating public services, but also to demand the fundamental political rights and civil liberties that have long been denied by the ruling Communist Party. According to independent media, the authorities responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, and at times live ammunition, leading to numerous cases of hospitalization for related injuries. In the aftermath of the unprecedented protests and civil unrest, hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators and activists have been subject to disappearances and detentions, and for the past month, the government has been blocking some of the most-used social media sites.
The Biden administration has taken the laudable step of expressing solidarity with the Cuban people in a joint statement with 20 democratic partners in Europe and Latin America, but it cannot stop there. International unity and strategic coordination will be vital to any effort to support the movement for democracy in Cuba. President Miguel Díaz-Canel would like nothing more than to use a unilateral U.S. intervention as a wedge political issue and an excuse for further crackdowns. He is already trying to exploit the State Department’s targeted sanctions against Cuban security forces to this end.
As others have already noted, key signatories were missing from last month’s joint statement, including major democracies like France, Canada, and Spain. The July 25 statement must not be the end, but the beginning of a coordinated international campaign by the Biden administration with two objectives: defending Cubans’ human rights and providing vital humanitarian aid to the island.
Democracies with seats on the UN Human Rights Council—to which Cuba was troublingly reelected last year—should work together to revive the demand that the Cuban regime allow special rapporteurs to visit the island and permit the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to access political prisoners in need of basic medical care. This reasonable action has precedent. In 2014, as part of an agreement with the Obama administration on the restoration of diplomatic relations, Havana indicated that it would increase engagement with the ICRC and UN human rights monitors—though it never followed through on those promises.
The Díaz-Canel government cannot be trusted to prioritize the well-being of the Cuban public over its own political goals. Despite false claims that the lack of personal protective equipment and COVID-19 vaccine access in Cuba was due to the U.S. embargo, the fact is that the United States has long allowed trade in medical supplies, telecommunications equipment, and other excepted categories of goods with Cuba—and the list of exemptions grew in response to the pandemic. In addition, Cuba conducts extensive international trade with countries besides the United States. The regime simply decided not to pursue vaccine imports from European nations, Russia, or China, choosing instead to develop its own versions. While at least one such vaccine has proven highly effective against the virus, the delay has cost many lives and livelihoods.
In an encouraging move, President Biden recently asked the State Department and the Treasury Department for recommendations on how to maximize the flow of remittances to ordinary Cubans without allowing the authorities to enrich themselves in the process. These actions should be multilateral. The European Union is Cuba’s main trade partnerand the biggest foreign investor in Cuba, making coordination with European democracies a prerequisite for effectively leveraging improvements in human rights and humanitarian aid for the island. The Biden administration should make a joint pledge with its democratic partners in Europe and Latin America to provide robust humanitarian aid, including vaccines, in coordination with international organizations that have an established presence in Cuba and the trust and respect of the Cuban people. This type of coordinated, effective delivery of much-needed aid would serve multiple purposes by laying the groundwork for long-term human rights improvements in Cuba, ensuring aid gets directly to Cuban people rather than lining the pockets of corrupt Cuban officials, and making clear that the United States—unlike the Díaz-Canel regime—is sympathetic to their plight and intent on supporting their humanitarian needs.
Working in concert with democratic allies and partners in Latin America and Europe, the Biden administration has an opportunity to protect human life and support political rights and civil liberties in Cuba. The Cuban people need and deserve support from abroad, and the best way for the United States to provide it is as part of a united coalition of democracies.