The United States, Cuba and Moral Authority

Barack Obama dominates his Republican rivals here in the United States, but the international arena is a different venue, entirely. There, Obama carries the baggage of American presidents past — and any new encumbrances he might pick up on his own. Certainly, in a heads up against Cuba, the United States finds it nearly impossible to claim the moral high-ground. “One cannot ignore that unlike in the US, Cuba regards education, healthcare and employment as rights, not privileges. It is fairly common knowledge that Cuba provides free education, from pre-k up to the university level, and healthcare to all its citizens is completely free of charge.”

Obama’s performance at the 5th Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and his handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is resonating better with African (Black) people than how he chose to deal with the UN Conference on Racism in Geneva. It seems almost naive to think that President Obama did not know the challenges he would face at the April 19th Summit. However, the game of international relations is always more one of chess than of checkers and, when dealing with political adversaries, always entails what the Cubans call the battle of ideas. Because revolutionary Cuba has had to square off against the US for nine successive administrations, it has become very adept in such battles. Essentially in the battle of ideas opponents try to achieve the higher moral ground in the eyes of the world on one level and in the eyes of their own populace on another.

In an April 16th op-ed in the Miami Herald Obama wrote: “This Summit offers the opportunity of a new beginning. Advancing prosperity, security and liberty for the people of the Americas depends upon 21st century partnerships, freed from the posturing of the past…The Summit gives every democratically-elected leader in the Americas the opportunity to reaffirm our shared values…and just as the United States seeks that goal in reaching out to the Cuban people, we expect all of our friends in the hemisphere to join together in supporting liberty, equality, and human rights for all Cubans.” This posture, rife with unfounded assumptions, is the same as those in the past that Obama is claiming to reject. It’s a posture that pretends US interests are to bring Cuba something it allegedly does not have; liberty, equality and human rights.

Consistent with Cuba’s exclusion from the Organization of American States (OAS) since 1962, on the grounds that its Marxism-Leninism was contrary to the spirit and principles of the body, Cuba has been disallowed participation in the Summits, which began in Miami in 1994. US dominance has waned dramatically in Latin American since 1994 and certainly since 1962. Thus it was common knowledge going into this 5th Summit that the issue of US-Cuba relations would be made a hot topic contrary to the preference of the US. As such, just before leaving for the Summit, Obama’s chess move was to lift restrictions on visits and money sent to Cuba by Cuban-Americans — steps he called “extraordinarily significant” for the families, and a show of good faith by his administration that it is open to a new beginning with Cuba. At times a bishop must be sacrificed to keep the king safe.

Obama conditioned this, however by saying he needs to see signs of changes on the island before he makes any more overtures. By changes he means the standard accusations leveled by imperialism against Cuba; that it should practice what the US considers democracy, stop abusing what the US considers human rights and open its economy to the “free” market. This is because he may not yet fully grasp the different nature between chess versus checkers.

At another summit in Venezuela, Cuba’s President Raul Castro responded to Obama saying that his government is willing to discuss any issue with Washington, as long as it’s a conversation between equals and Washington respects “the Cuban people’s right to self-determination.” At this stage in the chess game the US is playing without its queen. The most powerful piece in the game is the perception the world really has of Cuba and the US blockade against the island.

“We have sent word to the U.S. government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything — human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything,” said President Raul Castro.

If or when such a discussion takes place, who will really have the higher moral ground? What follows is a more critical examination of this question; to see how Revolutionary Cuba stands up against the infamous benevolence of the US.

First, there is the fact that at this weekend’s Summit, even while embracing Obama, the overwhelming majority of Latin American and Caribbean leaders urged him to end the blockade against Cuba quickly and without any preconditions. They also expressed a virtually unanimous desire to restore Cuba’s status in the OAS. At some point Bolivian President Evo Morales even declared he was a Marxist-Leninist and dared the OAS to expel his country for it. The greater point Morales was making is that Washington should not dictate the road Cuba chooses. Ironically Sunday’s Washington Post reported Obama as saying at the Summit, “Every one of our nations has a right to follow its own path.” Funny he can’t recognize this in reference to Cuba.

Human Rights

When comparing human rights in the US and in Cuba it should be considered that Cuba’s national security has actually been under constant attack by the US since the dawning of the revolution. The US government doesn’t have to worry about the world’s most powerful foreign force, just 90 miles from its shores, constantly attempting to destabilize and overthrow it. Cuba does and the US is that force. One method used against Cuba is the bribing of Cuba’s own citizens to serve the empire against their own country.

A declassified October 1961 document authored by then CIA inspector Lyman Kirkpatrick states, “The history of the Cuban Project begins in 1959” and goes on to outline its fundamental aspects: “a) Formation of a Cuban exile organization…to direct opposition activities, and to provide cover for Agency operations. b) A propaganda offensive in the name of the opposition. c) Creation inside Cuba of a clandestine intelligence collection and action apparatus to be responsive to the direction of the exile organization. d) Development outside Cuba of a small paramilitary force to be introduced into Cuba to organize, train and lead resistance groups.”

Such activities remain in effect today under the title “Cuba Program,” compliments of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Anywhere such valid national security concerns exist countries cannot simply take for granted the integrity of each and every one of their citizens. But organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International refuse to factor in this added complexity when judging human rights in Cuba or any other country that falls prey to this improved regime change strategy of imperialism.

In response to this Cuba has had to enact laws specifically designed to keep its citizens from aiding and abetting the US’ immoral and internationally condemned Helms-Burton Act. The Helms-Burton Act (a.k.a. The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity – Libertad – Act of 1996) strengthens and extends the territorial application of the initial US embargo against Cuba to apply to foreign companies trading with Cuba. In effect this transformed the embargo into a blockade of the Island, hindering it from importing even the most basic of human necessities. This is reinforced by the use of Cuban nationals posing as political dissidents while disseminating false and misleading information on behalf of the US to justify the blockade.

When the intersection between human rights and economic justice is considered, the comparison between Cuba and the US reveals some interestingly stark contrasts. One cannot ignore that unlike in the US, Cuba regards education, healthcare and employment as rights, not privileges. It is fairly common knowledge that Cuba provides free education, from pre-k up to the university level, and healthcare to all its citizens is completely free of charge. Additionally, according to the World Health Organization and UNESCO these services are among the highest quality in the world. Conversely the US has many obscenely under-funded and poorly resourced public schools especially in neighborhoods with majorities of African/Black and Latino youth. The state of healthcare in the US is infamous, with an estimated 47 million citizens having no health insurance and another 25 million underinsured.

Cuba’s literacy and education ranks second highest in the world at a noteworthy 99.8 percent. Although the United States ranks seventeenth at 99.0 percent, it must be understood that US literacy rates are manipulated by various definitions. The government may label individuals who can read a couple thousand simple words they’ve learned by sight in the first four grades in school as literate; but the most comprehensive study of US adult literacy ever commissioned by the government argues that such adults are “functionally illiterate.” That is they cannot read well enough to hold a good job.

That study involved lengthy interviews of over 26,700 adults statistically balanced for age, gender, ethnicity, education level, and location (urban, suburban, or rural) in 12 states across the US. Designed to represent the US population as a whole, it showed that 21% to 23% of adult Americans were not “able to locate information in text,” could not “make low-level inferences using printed materials,” and were unable to “integrate easily identifiable pieces of information.” Another study by the Jenkins Group showed that millions of Americans never read another book after leaving school. This in what is regarded as the most “developed” nation in the world.

A World Bank-sponsored study records Cuban education “as outstanding: universal school enrollment and attendance; nearly universal adult literacy; proportional female representation at all levels, including higher education; a strong scientific training base, particularly in chemistry and medicine; consistent pedagogical quality across widely dispersed classrooms; equality of basic educational opportunity, even in impoverished areas, both rural and urban. In a recent regional study of Latin America and the Caribbean, Cuba ranked first in math and science achievement at all grade levels, among both males and females. In many ways, Cuba’s schools are the equals of schools in OECD countries, despite the fact that Cuba’s economy is that of a developing country.” OECD’s are the countries signed onto the Convention on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, none of which are in Africa, Latin America or the Caribbean.

In relation to foreign policy, Cuba sends thousands of doctors and teachers to serve the oppressed in countries around the world, while the US has sent exponentially more soldiers to “serve” as occupiers and invaders than they have doctors or teachers.

U.S. propaganda mostly reduces human rights to things like freedom of speech and association. But what good is the “freedom” to speak out when the state can completely ignore you and in spite of the most blatant of abuses – like the war, electoral improprieties, racism and other inequalities? We have already shown above that much is done to spread lies about the Cuban revolution and over time many of these lies have been exposed. The Cuban government has consistently, emphatically and persuasively denied that free speech is suppressed in Cuba. In a 2003 April press conference Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque refuted claims about the arrests and convictions of 75 of its citizens saying, “It has been said that these are prisoners of conscience that they have been charged for thinking or speaking and I categorically reject this notion. What has been judged here are actions and conducts typified as crimes by the law. We have not judged ideas. We win battles of ideas with ideas, as Jose Marti said, and we are very strong in the field of ideas. We punish actions and conducts.”

Countless visitors to the island including this author, who have met Cubans with no qualms about openly criticizing their country, can corroborate this. And unlike in many US backed military dictatorships where hundreds of thousands of people have been disappeared and murdered at the hands of such governments, never has anyone been able to identify in Cuba a single name of a missing person, a person murdered at the hands of the government, anyone arrested in the wee hours of the night with a hood over her or his head who was never seen again. There are, however thousands of unresolved such cases on lists of missing people in countries whose oppressive governments have enjoyed the backing of Washington. Barack Obama is undoubtedly a smart and informed man. Can he be ignorant of these facts? Regardless, whether he is or isn’t helps no one.

Capital punishment is also a very instructive issue when comparing human rights within Cuba and the US. With 1158 executions since 1976, 37 of those occurred in 2008 and 22 have already taken place not halfway through 2009. In Cuba there has been a moratorium on capital punishment since 2001. Cuba made exceptions only in 2003, sentencing three men to death after their part in a series of armed, US-instigated ferry and airline hijackings accompanied by overt threats against Cuba by the US government. The threats went as far as saying that “Cuba will be next” to follow the US invasion of Iraq. Even if one considers this a heavy-handed response, Cuba invoked this measure on people who clearly posed a threat to their national security. Additionally it can’t be forgotten that this was within a context that BAR’s Glen Ford has fittingly described as “the full spectrum of international crimes against its small island neighbor: invasion, biological warfare, a relentless campaign of assassination and terror, and the world’s longest trade embargo.”

When the US refers to “national security” it generally is referring to the protection of imperialist interests in some far off part of the world. But no one can refute that Cuba has real live national security concerns because of truly powerful and poised enemies.

While Barack Obama alludes to human rights in Cuba, he dismisses and ignores human rights violations in the US of innocent people like Shawn Bell, Oscar Grant and literally thousands of others murdered at the hands of police and never afforded justice by the US government. No such things happen in revolutionary Cuba.

Democracy

The number one justification the US uses for its policies toward Cuba is the claim that Cuba is not a democracy; when one looks at the facts this becomes a patently transparent lie now being regurgitated by Obama. Even if he is truly unfamiliar with the Cuban system, surely he knows the US has normal relations with countries like China, Vietnam and even Saudi Arabia which has no parties or elections at all, calling into question why Cuba is singled out.

The voting age in Cuba is 16 years of age. Contrary to what is implied by the US, Cuba has regular elections that enjoy participation by over 90-96% of its citizens at every level; local, municipal, provincial and national. Statistics for the US find elections grossly wanting with turnouts in federal elections reflecting percentages in the 30s and percentages in the low 50s for the presidency. The candidacies of Bush and Obama raised these numbers slightly for the last two elections, 55% in 2004 and 57% in 2008. It should also be noted that US statistics are a little misleading by only considering those registered to vote and not the portion of the citizenry as a whole. Cuba’s statistics on the other hand are directly based on their population who are automatically eligible to vote once reaching 16 years of age.

The strength of a democracy is affected by how educated and informed a populace is. A comparison has already been made between education in the US and Cuba. In addition the Cuban people are some of the most informed and politically astute people in the world. People from the US are notorious for being the most politically ignorant people in the world.

Cuban people have the right to national referendums while this right is only afforded to some states in the US. Even though the people do not vote directly for the president, the Cuban National Assembly elects him, and the people directly elect that body. Contrary to notions people in the US are fed they do not directly elect their president either. The purpose of the US Electoral College is to make sure voters cannot directly choose the president. Once campaign financing is also factored in, along with the nomination processes of the two monopolizing parties, there is even less democracy involved.

Because Cuba’s National Assembly is directly elected by the people, if the intelligent, politically astute Cuban people did not want Fidel Castro as President for all these years they would have easily found a way to get in a National Assembly that would not re-elect him. Now the post of President in Cuba constitutionally has no term limits, which is why Fidel was able to lead for so long. While Western concepts consider unlimited terms undemocratic, it actually can be argued as being more democratic. The people in this instance are allowed to politically exercise the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Cuba’s National Assembly is equivalent to the House and Senate in the US but comprised not only of representatives from geographic areas. It is also comprised of representation from integral sectors of the society, such as women, youth, workers, etc. The US government has no such representation.

Although Cuba is regularly referred to as a dictatorship controlled exclusively by Fidel Castro himself, Fidel’s former post, now occupied by his brother Raul, wields less power than that of the President of the United States (POTUS). The Cuban president cannot appoint his cabinet ministers. The National Assembly elects them as well. The POTUS appoints his administration. The President of Cuba does not have veto power over decisions of the Assembly. POTUS does. Contrary to popular belief outside of Cuba, Cuba’s process is not done in the name of the Communist Party of Cuba or of any other political, mass or social organization. This means membership in the Party is not required to run for any post in the government.

There is so much misinformation spread about democracy in Cuba or the supposed lack thereof it would take books to comprehensively address the topic.

Political Prisoners

Much is propagated about political prisoners in Cuba. The way this is mentioned by US government officials and the “news media” one would think there are no political prisoners in the US. How much has the public spoken out for the release or at least a fair trial for Mumia Abu Jamal? Leonard Peltier, freedom fighter for the American Indian Movement has languished in prison for 32 years with calls for his release coming from all corners of the world. There are no less than 70 political prisoners in the US and speculations that the number is actually twice as high.

In Cuba, however those being called political prisoners or prisoners of conscience have been proven otherwise in Cuban courts and convicted of what is essentially treason. The evidence and records of the trial proceedings are a matter of public record in Cuba. Like every country Cuba has laws against treason. Unlike most countries Cuba has the compounded challenge of US laws created against it, which are designed to strangle the country into submission. These are violations of the UN Charter and an offense to Cuba’s right to national self-determination. The UN General Assembly has for years consistently condemned the US blockade in votes with only the US, Israel and various third countries casting dissenting votes.

In response Cuba enacted laws to address the US policies against it, such as Law No. 88 on the Protection of National Independence and the Economy of Cuba, an antidote to the US’ Helms-Burton Act. Article 6.1 of Cuba’s Law No. 88 stipulates that “He who gathers, reproduces, disseminates subversive material from the government of the United States of America, its agencies, representative bodies, officials or any foreign entity to support the objectives of the Helms-Burton Act, the Blockade and the war, shall incur a sanction of deprivation of liberty.”

To criticize Cuba for their handling of these “political prisoners”, is to dismiss Cuba’s right to defend itself against the pervasive and immoral methods of the US government.

Conclusion

It is an incredible shame that the Obama administration won’t stand on principle regarding one of the most important and historic cases in the US, the Cuban Five and the 12 amicus briefs filed on their behalf. The fact that the US finally charged the CIA trained criminal and terrorist Luis Posada Carrilles indicates in whose favor the battle of ideas is leaning, even if only for the relatively petty crime of lying.

It should go without saying that the most powerful weapon in the battle of ideas is the actual application of humanist principles and not simply echoing the rhetoric of them. When a nation assumes moral authority over another, one would expect honesty and the practice of domestic and foreign policies grounded in justice. Contrary to what one might believe from Barack Obama and unlike what is practiced in the US, Cuba prioritizes people over profit and private interests, domestically and internationally. A simple cursory look reveals this.

Netfa Freeman directs the Social Action & Leadership School for Activists, which provides affordable courses covering all aspects of grassroots activism, at the Institute for Policy Studies.