The Cuban regime is one of the oldest dictatorships in the world and the situation is only getting worse. Following the pro-democracy and peaceful protests on July 11, 2021, the Cuban regime cracked down. The repression of human rights defenders rose to unprecedented levels. Arbitrary arrests have become so common that Cuba now has the largest number of political prisoners held in the Americas. The Cuban regime is collaborating with other larger authoritarian actors, including Russia and China. However, Canadian policy regarding Cuba has not been adjusted.
Canada has a policy, in general, of upholding human rights and democracy throughout the world. This must be applied in a principled manner. Defending human rights should not be political, partisan or geopolitical. Canada should uphold human rights and democracy in all arenas. Doing so requires us to take a critical look at our policy toward regimes like the one in Havana, with which we have historically been soft, and seek approaches that are more consistent with our interests and values.
One aspect of this is adjusting how Cuban history is told in Canada. To this day, the most prevalent narrative in Canada is that the US embargo is responsible for the ongoing poverty and oppression in Cuba. This narrative ignores or minimizes the responsibility of the Cuban regime itself. Canada, turning its back on Cuban civil society, prefers to do business with the Havana regime. On the other hand, it totally ignores human rights defenders and members of the peaceful pro-democracy movement in Cuba.
We must confront reality: this narrative at the heart of Canada’s policy towards Cuba is more myth than vision rooted in fact, and has been weaponized for decades to justify a deadpan approach to the 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 prohibition of private participation in 124 professions such as journalism, publishing, film audiovisual production, wholesale trade, key economic and cultural activities, and more.1 Also, consider the many repressive laws as Decree Law 3702 that censors information “contrary to social interest”, or Decree Law 353 that censors online content, as well as the Cuban Penal Code that criminalizes dissidence.
These laws exist and suppress, regardless of any embargo. Focusing on US impacts, however, is a distraction when we should be focusing on the regime’s own bad policies and the policies of the countries that serve to enable its oppression. It is 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 with recognizing how out of sync Canada’s politics are compared to the politics of our allies. Canada has fallen behind the European Union and the United States Congress in condemning the repression in Cuba and affirming its solidarity with human rights defenders on the island. While the European Parliament passed three resolutions condemning the crackdown in Cuba in 2021 (two after the July 11, 2021 protests), and the United States Congress undertook similar initiatives, the Canadian House of Commons has not approved a single resolution on the situation of human rights in Cuba.
The Canadian Parliament has also long since taken a public position calling for the release of political prisoners in Cuba. The handful of comments by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, denouncing the crackdown on July 11, 2021, are insufficient when compared to what was said and done by democratic governments in other parts of the world.
Publication condemnations must also be accompanied by concrete action. Canada has numerous tools at its disposal to address human rights violations, all of which should be used to uphold human rights in Cuba.
For example, a key tool that Canada can and should take advantage of is its ability to impose targeted sanctions on human rights violators using its Magnitsky Act. This Act allows Canada to impose property freezing sanctions and visa bans on persons responsible for serious human rights violations or significant acts of corruption. Canada has imposed targeted sanctions, including the use of its Magnitsky Act, in response to serious human rights violations around the world, including in Nicaragua and Venezuela. However, Canada has not yet imposed specific sanctions on individuals responsible for human rights abuses in Cuba. Canada should.
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 inresponse to authoritarianism and human rights abuses in Cuba.