Do U.S. Sanctions Contribute to Human Rights Abuses in Cuba?

American sanctions against the Communist nation make it difficult for regular people to obtain necessities, according to a recent report.

EU human rights envoy Eamon Gilmore said the U.S. sanctions on Cuba, which sharply curtail financial transactions, tourism, and trade, had clear impacts on Cuba’s economy and society. “It’s hurting the human rights situation because it hurts people on the ground. The people who are impacted are ordinary Cuban citizens who have difficulty accessing food, medicines,” he remarked.

The U.S. says sanctions are necessary to hold the Cuban government accountable for rights violations and that it makes exceptions for humanitarian purposes and programs to support the Cuban people and the private sector.

As for human rights, Gilmore said Cuba had made some progress on women’s rights and gender equality but doubled down on the bloc’s previous criticisms of Cuba’s handling of protests in 2021, the largest since former leader Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution.

The United States and the European Union have both critiqued Cuba’s response to those protests as repressive and heavy-handed. Rights groups say around 1,000 Cubans were jailed for their political beliefs following the demonstrations and several subsequent protests.

Human Rights Situation in Cuba

For many years, U.S. sanctions made Cuba a picturesque country. American-made automobiles from the 1950s still roam the streets of Havana. But the island nation is now in transition, and U.S. sanctions have a less picturesque effect.

In March 2009, Raul Casreo replaced his ailing brother as Cuba’s dictator. Raul Castro introduced some limited reforms.

The move toward pseudo-democracy continued in 2018 when Miguel Díaz-Canel replaced Raul Castro. Díaz-Canel backed a new constitution that reaffirmed Communist one-party rule but also recognized the right to hold private property.

Then COVID-19 hit, and it hit Cuba hard. Angry protestors took to the streets in 2021, airing their grievances about the slow pace of democratic reforms, the government’s coronavirus response, and other issues. Cuba’s government brutally suppressed these protests, which it blamed on the United States. The finger-pointing ended a trend toward warmer relations with Washington.

We mentioned the slow pace of reforms. Díaz-Canel isn’t as authoritarian as his predecessors, but he’s by no means a democratic leader. According to the U.S. State Department, a special branch of the National Revolutionary Police monitors, infiltrates, and suppresses independent political organizations. Specific alleged human rights abuses include:

  • Unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, by the government;
  • Torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of political dissidents, detainees, and prisoners by security forces;
  • Harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions;
  • Political prisoners;
  • Transnational repression against individuals in another country;
  • Serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy;
  • Serious restrictions on freedom of expression and media, including violence or threats of violence against journalists, censorship, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, and enforcement or threat to enforce criminal libel laws to limit expression;
  • Serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the right of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental and civil society organizations;
  • Severe restrictions on religious freedom, restrictions on freedom of movement and residence within the country, and on the right to leave the country;
  • Inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections;
  • Serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation;
  • Widespread government corruption;
  • Lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including femicide;
  • Trafficking in persons, including forced labor; and
  • Outlawing of independent trade unions.

Economic sanctions rarely affect such behavior in undemocratic countries. The leaders, who live insulated lives and are unaffected by sanctions, usually don’t care if the people suffer. After all, it’s not like the people can vote them out of office at the next election.

Tragically, economic sanctions often make a bad situation worse because the people suffer, and the government obviously does not care.

Spillover Effect on Guantánamo Bay Contractors

As protests in Cuba become increasingly violent and the government’s crackdowns become increasingly brutal, contractors at this tiny American base are largely responsible for protecting American citizens and interests on this island.

The Navy has significantly downsized its presence on Guantánamo Bay since the 2010s when the base was a controversial black-ops prison and lawmakers made several attempts to close it. When regular servicemembers cannot protect people and property for political reasons, contractors usually step in.

Contractors are also well-suited for protection duty because they are much like good backup quarterbacks. When the starter goes down, whether it is for a few plays or a few months, a good backup is always ready to play. When the starter comes back, a good backup returns to the bench and keeps his mouth shut. Likewise, contractors quietly blend in until needed. Then, they fight aggressively.

Private military contractors don’t count in official troop totals. So, although the American military presence at Guantánamo Bay is officially smaller, for practical purposes, it is roughly the same size. Contractors simply give politicians deniability.

This arrangement has the same effect on Cubans. The government highlights reports of departing American soldiers and quietly downplays reports of arriving contractors. That is not hard to do because contractors often come in-country on the DL anyway.

Injury Compensation Available

By many definitions, Guantánamo Bay is not an overseas war zone. But for Defense Base Act purposes, that is exactly what it is.

The 1941 Defense Base Act applies to injured private military contractors. DBA benefits replace lost wages and pay reasonably necessary medical bills.

Guantánamo Bay is less than 100 miles from Florida. But it is an overseas territory for DBA purposes, even though it is also a U.S. possession.

Covered overseas contractors need not be U.S. citizens or even U.S. nationals. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter if they carry a machine gun or a laptop. The DBA covers all defense and private military contractors employed by a branch of the U.S. government. DBA benefits also apply to contractors employed by some sympathetic foreign governments.

Furthermore, Guantánamo Bay is a war zone. The DBA defines a “war zone” as a territory that has any official U.S. military presence, like an embassy guard.

For more information about DBA benefits, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.