by US Ambassador D. Brent Hardt
In recent messages to Cuba marking 40 years of diplomatic relations, the Government of Guyana and many of its CARICOM counterparts spoke of a partnership based on principles of solidarity and strategic partnership.
Notably absent from these messages were references to Guyana’s and CARICOM members’ most cherished national principles of democracy and human rights. Although the countries of the English-speaking Caribbean have a proud democratic tradition and a commitment to respect for human rights at home and abroad, when it comes to the Cuban people this tradition is unfortunately set aside.
True partnership often requires one friend to tell the other hard truths. The English Caribbean’s friendship with Cuba would be more meaningful if the Caribbean were willing to accompany its strongly felt sense of solidarity with a willingness to press the Cuban government to ensure that all Cubans enjoy the same rights that Caribbean citizens demand and enjoy.
In recent tributes to Guyana’s relations with Cuba, top officials duly praised Cuba for assistance to Guyana in education and health, but stopped short of extending a true hand of friendship to the Cuban people by encouraging the government to guarantee the political and civil liberties of its citizens. Instead, officials and media outlets promoted an outdated view of U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba (incorrectly referred to by the foreign ministry as a blockade). They failed to recognize the sweeping changes in Cuba policy that President Obama has implemented.
In Cuba, the President’s priority is to empower Cubans to freely determine their own future. In April 2009 and January 2011, he announced policy changes to allow Cuban-Americans to travel freely to Cuba and increase the flow of U.S. visitors for academic, religious, and cultural exchanges. The goal is to build connections between the peoples of the United States and Cuba, and to give Cubans the support and encouragement they need to build a stronger and more diverse civil society. U.S. citizens, engaging in well-defined, purposeful travel, are the best ambassadors for our democratic ideals. Moreover, the hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans who send and carry remittances to Cuba under the new policy framework help Cubans gain economic opportunities for self-employment and private property that the rest of us sometimes take for granted.
The United States also believes in the importance of engaging with pro-democracy and human rights activists who have been working for years to expand the political and civil rights of all Cubans. As Secretary Clinton has said, societies move forward when citizens work together peacefully to transform common interests into common actions that serve the common good. Our programs in Cuba provide humanitarian assistance to political prisoners and their families, support the documentation of human rights abuses, and promote the free flow of information to, from, and within the island. We support and highlight the work of those whose efforts help the Cuban people determine their own future.
The Caribbean can and should support democracy in Cuba. Indeed, just as the Caribbean benefits from Cuban expertise in health and education, so could Caribbean countries share valuable lessons with Cuba on the importance of free labor unions, uncensored media and access to the internet, and the value of open and fair elections as a tool to build political consensus and advance national progress.
The Guyana Chronicle and Guyana Times suggested in recent commentaries that U.S. policy seeks to isolate Cuba. The reality, however, is that the United States is reaching out to the Cuban people in an unprecedented fashion.
If the Caribbean wants to establish a true friendship with Cuba, warm words of solidarity are not enough. Instead, the region’s leaders should seek to advance a dialogue with Cuba on democracy and human rights that is true to the shared ideals and aspirations of the Caribbean and Cuban people. That kind of friendship would be truly built to last.