In times of crisis, governments have a responsibility of maintaining their power, the stability of their institutions, and protecting their citizens from deteriorating conditions of their livelihood. Governments also have a choice on whether they will fulfill these responsibilities either with a commitment to civil rights and liberties or not.
Authoritarian regimes tend to not fulfill these responsibilities; they engage in corrupt policies that protect specific members of society, such as high ranking community, business, and political leaders, but disadvantage the rest of the population. Crises are used as an excuse for government crack-down, and even abuse, on citizens. However, it can also push a government to act more economically-liberal, similar to many democracies around the world. In a move toward privatization to repair economic conditions, Cuba has developed policies to integrate citizens into previously banned, private industries. This may strengthen the influence Cuban citizens have on domestic economics and on their communities, as well as the practice of democratic ideals on the island. Current conditions of human rights in Cuba, however, may inhibit the anticipated movement towards democracy that many expect to see from economic liberalization.
The COVID-19 pandemic was the onset of a global economic crisis when many less-developed countries suffered more than their more-developed counterparts. Cuba is one of many countries facing this issue, with an eleven-percent decrease in gross-domestic product since the onset of the pandemic. Furthermore, tightened sanctions from the US and a deteriorating tourism economy has exacerbated deteriorating conditions for the island’s people, disproportionately for poorer communities, and economic development. In a move many scholars never expected to witness, the international community is seeing a new response to this crisis; on February 6th, 2021, the Cuban labor ministry declared it will erase a small list of 127 approved private industries and now only ban a number of 124 jobs prohibited from the private sector. As a Cuban citizen notes, this is an amazing opportunity for entrepreneurs wanting to spur economic development throughout the island. Others hopefully note that this weakens the monitoring powers of the Cuban bureaucracy since citizens now “‘only have to show that you’re not in one of the activities that is explicitly banned.’” Many global researchers, scholars, and Cuban citizens are expressing hope for a move toward political openness due to incoming economic reforms such as this one. Cuba’s newest development towards privatization may live up to its hope, despite the current economic situation in the pandemic. As private citizens become more involved in many industries, their voice will have the chance to gain more political weight in Cuban politics; they will have a greater role in the economic operations of their country. Unfortunately, Cuba has a long and successful history of getting rid of those who create waves against the political status-quo.
More research on the current situation of human rights in Cuba dispels any hope one would have for political reform in the near future. The current public health crisis has provided the government with more avenues to silence opposition, such as political individuals and groups. Human Rights Watch reports that pandemic precautions are corrupted by the government to silence dissidents and government critics. Specifically, “authorities have engaged in arbitrary arrests, abusive prosecutions, and detention in unsanitary and overcrowded cells conducive to the spread of Covid-19” which occur eerily close to another uptick in targeting critics and punishing them. Police officers are also incredibly abusive towards specific citizens of opposition groups when it comes to breaking mask mandates, in one case smoking a cigarette outside. The US Department of State also has their own reports of human rights violations carried out by the Cuban government. Horrific detention center conditions, reports of disappearances, and abuse of police authority threaten dissident Cuban citizens who continually face institutional repression and abuse. Current reports show we still have a lot to worry about when it comes to progress towards democratic-liberal policies in the authoritarian state.
Researchers argue that eras of economic and socio-political crises allow authoritarian regimes to further consolidate their power through austerity measures that disguise the implementation of human rights abuses. Organizations like the HRW have cited this in their reports along with similar cases of government abuse; for example, medical professionals in Wuhan, China were silenced through arbitrary arrests, intimidation, and more strategies from their government which aided in the expansion of the current virus we are protecting ourselves from. Other regimes are doing the same to silence critics of their respective government’s COVID-19 response, such as Thailand, Venezuela, and Turkey. Authoritarian governments additionally are picking and choosing when public gatherings are banned, usually when unpopular and frustrating policies and events cause an uproar in communities. Similar to wars, crises allow governments to curtail civil liberties for the “security” of their country. Reports and research from global scholars and organizations are presenting us with findings – not just from Cuba but from all over the world – that are a cause for major concern for the human rights of marginalized, largely dissident, communities within authoritarian borders.
Rising human rights violations in Cuba occur at a time when the government is introducing more liberal, private economic policies. As limited as they may be, they give citizens an opportunity for entrepreneurship that many on the island haven’t been able to enjoy for an immeasurable amount of time. However, as violations of civil liberties and rights persist on the island, I am critical of the anticipated movement towards democracy in Cuba.