Since President Barack Obama’s historic Cuba visit on March 20, some are speculating about whether he can pressure Cuba to improve its human rights. A comparison of Cuba’s human rights record with that of the United States, however, shows that the America should be taking lessons from Cuba, says Marjorie Cohn.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains two different categories of human rights – civil and political rights on the one hand; and economic, social and cultural rights on the other.
Civil and political rights include the rights to life, free expression, freedom of religion, fair trial, self-determination; and to be free from torture, cruel treatment, and arbitrary detention.
Economic, social and cultural rights comprise the rights to education, healthcare, social security, unemployment insurance, paid maternity leave, equal pay for equal work, reduction of infant mortality; prevention, treatment and control of diseases; and to form and join unions and strike.
These human rights are enshrined in two treaties – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The United States has ratified the ICCPR.
But the U.S. refuses to ratify the ICESCR. Since the Reagan administration, it has been U.S. policy to define human rights only as civil and political rights. Economic, social and cultural rights are dismissed as akin to social welfare, or socialism. The U.S. government criticizes civil and political rights in Cuba while disregarding Cubans’ superior access to universal housing, health care, education, and its guarantee of paid maternity leave and equal pay rates.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government has committed serious human rights violations on Cuban soil, including torture, cruel treatment, and arbitrary detention at Guantanamo. And since 1960, the United States has expressly interfered with Cuba’s economic rights and its right to self-determination through the economic embargo.
The U.S. embargo of Cuba, now a blockade, was initiated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower during the Cold War in response to a 1960 memo written by a senior State Department official. The memo proposed “a line of action that makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the [Castro] government.”
That goal has failed, but the punishing blockade has made life difficult in Cuba. In spite of that inhumane effort, however, Cuba guarantees its people a remarkable panoply of human rights.
Unlike in the United States, healthcare is considered a right in Cuba. Universal healthcare is free to all. Cuba has the highest ratio of doctors to patients in the world at 6.7 per 1,000 people. The 2014 infant mortality rate was 4.2 per 1,000 live births – one of the lowest in the world.
Healthcare in Cuba emphasizes prevention, rather than relying only on medicine, partly due to the limited access to medicines occasioned by the U.S. blockade. Cuba has developed pioneering medicines to treat and prevent lung cancer, and prevent diabetic amputations. Because of the blockade, however, we in the United States cannot take advantage of them.
Free education is a universal right up to and including higher education. Cuba spends a larger proportion of its GDP on education than any other country in the world. “Mobile teachers” are deployed to homes if children are unable to attend school. Many schools provide free morning and after-school care for working parents who have no extended family. It is free to train to be a doctor in Cuba. There are 22 medical schools in Cuba, up from only three in 1959 before the Cuban Revolution.
Women in Cuba receive nine months of full salary during paid maternity leave, followed by three months at 75 percent of full salary. The government subsidizes abortion and family planning, places a high value on pre-natal care, and offers “maternity housing” to women before giving birth.
No More Lecturing Cuba and Lift the Damn Blockade, Already!
When Cuba and the U.S. held talks about human rights a year ago, Pedro Luis Pedroso, head of the Cuban delegation, said, “We expressed our concerns regarding discrimination and racism patterns in US society, the worsening of police brutality, torture acts and extrajudicial executions in the fight on terror and the legal limbo of prisoners at the US prison camp in Guantanamo.”
The hypocrisy of the U.S. government in lecturing Cuba about its human rights while denying many basic human rights to the American people is glaring. The United States should lift the blockade. Obama needs to close down Gitmo and give it back to Cuba!