President Obama’s Visit to Cuba: An Opportunity to Refocus on Human Rights

Report Americas

President Obama’s Visit to Cuba: An Opportunity to Refocus on Human Rights

March 17, 2016 5 min read Download Report
Former Senior Policy Analyst, Latin America
Ana Rosa Quintana led The Heritage Foundation’s efforts on U.S. policy toward Latin America.

On March 20–22, President Barack Obama will visit Cuba, the first sitting U.S. President to do so since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. As part of his radical Cuba policy shift, the President is meeting with his Cuban counterpart, Raúl Castro. Since the President announced this shift in December 2014, U.S. policy toward Cuba has deviated drastically from a focus on human rights and a democratic transition to engaging the Castro regime and providing the government in Havana with expanded commercial opportunities with the U.S.[1]

President Obama should use the opportunity afforded by this trip both to prove his critics wrong and to set Cuba policy back on the proper course. While he has rightly expressed his desire to meet with dissidents and members of Cuban civil society, that alone is insufficient. Rather than continuing to appease the government in Havana, the President should use his bully pulpit to publicly push for a human rights agenda in Cuba.

The Administration’s Inconsistent Commitment to Cuban Freedom

While members of the Administration claim human rights are a core part of their engagement strategy, these words have yet to transform into actionable policy. For over a year, the U.S. has granted unilateral concessions to Havana without conditioning them upon human rights improvements, a strategy that has clearly emboldened the regime. Even with the impending visit of the President, the regime continues to publicly and violently repress dissidents. Secretary of State John Kerry was forced to cancel a planned trip to Cuba, planned for shortly before the President’s, due to the regime’s unwillingness to negotiate with the State Department. News outlets have reported that even the White House has been reduced to negotiating with its Cuban counterparts over which members of civil society the President will be allowed to meet.[2]

This inconsistency between the Administration’s stated desires for human rights improvements in Cuba and its reluctance to push for them has extended all the way to the Oval Office. In December, the President stated he would only travel to Cuba “if, in fact, I with confidence can say that we’re seeing some progress in the liberty and freedom and possibilities of ordinary Cubans.… If we’re going backwards, then there’s not much reason for me to be there.”[3] His visit is taking place next week, despite the fact that in the first two months of 2016 alone, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights has documented 2,555 political arrests—almost 30 percent of 2015’s year-end total of 8,616.[4]

Promoting America’s National Interests by Supporting Human Rights and Freedom

The basis for relations in the Western Hemisphere and the core of U.S. regional foreign policy is largely based upon the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter. Signed by 34 of the region’s 35 countries, it pledges unwavering support for human rights, democratic governance, and the rule of law. Castro’s Cuba remains the only country unable to meet those standards. As the hemispheric leader, the U.S. is obliged to support freedom on the island. During his visit to Cuba, President Obama should:

  • Meet publicly with members representing the full spectrum of Cuba’s civil society. While the President claims he will be meeting with members of civil society, anything short of a public engagement with individuals, including prominent anti-Castro activists, is insignificant. President Obama should not repeat Secretary Kerry’s mistake of being deferential to his Cuban counterparts to the detriment of Cuba’s dissidents and activists.[5] The President’s recent letter to the prominent dissident group Ladies in White is insufficient.
  • Pledge support for Cuba’s persecuted religious community. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and other independent organizations report unprecedented violations of religious freedoms by Cuban authorities. They report “a tenfold increase - with 2,300 separate violations recorded in 2015 compared to 220 in 2014.”[6] In three provinces alone, 100 churches were demolished and others properties were illegally seized. In reference to the Ladies in White, CSW reported:

    Week after week, state security agents physically and violently dragged scores of women away from Sunday morning services…. This tactic is also applied to religious leaders who are viewed as problematic, for whatever reason, by the authorities.… [F]or the first time in four years a church leader was sentenced to and served six months in prison for holding unauthorized religious services.[7]

    At a time when Christians are being persecuted around the world, the U.S. must protect those in its own hemisphere.

  • Push for the return of U.S. fugitives housed in Cuba. An untold number of fugitives have been given safe haven on the island. Officially, the U.S. Department of Justice places the number at 31,[8] but credible estimates put it closer to 70.[9] Among the fugitives are two notable terrorists: Guillermo Morales, a member of a Puerto Rican separatist group who attempted to plant a bomb at a U.S. military installation, and JoAnne Chesimard, a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army who was convicted of murdering a New Jersey state trooper.[10] Given that the U.S. returned three Cuban spies as part of the normalization agreement, the President should not hesitate to push the return of American fugitives in Cuba, particularly Morales and Chesimard.
  • Aggressively seek compensation for U.S. property and asset claimants. According to the U.S. Justice Department’s Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, there are 5,913 active claims against the Cuban government, totaling roughly $7 billion–$8 billion. These claims are the result of the Cuban government’s illegal expropriation of American property and assets. To date, the Administration has not made any meaningful attempt at recuperating repayment for these American assets. While full resolution of these claims will take years, justice demands advocacy on behalf of the President.
  • Work to build a regional coalition to support a democratic transition on the island. Ideally, Cuba would be best served by a government chosen by its own citizens. For over half a century, Cubans have been ruled by the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running military dictatorship. Yet many countries in Latin America continue to publicly support the generals running Havana. President Obama should instruct his State Department to work with hemispheric leaders like Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos to advocate for Cuban freedom. Despite the region’s general acceptance of the status quo in Cuba, America must remind Organization of American States members of their duty to uphold basic freedoms guaranteed by the Inter-American Democratic Charter.


The Cuban government has been emboldened by the Administration’s unilateral concessions and is now clearly dictating the terms of President Obama’s visit. When the visit was announced, Cuba’s state newspaper, Granma, published an article declaring that the President’s trip to Cuba is confirmation that the Castro regime has never violated human rights. By allowing the Cuban government such control over this visit, President Obama seems to be repeating the mistake Secretary Kerry made when he allowed the regime to bar dissidents from the opening of the U.S. embassy in Havana in August. The President should instead seize the opportunity presented by this historic visit to demonstrate to the Castro regime and our allies in the region that the U.S. is committed to protecting human rights in Cuba.

—Ana Rosa Quintana is the Policy Analyst for Latin America and the Western Hemisphere in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Ana R. Quintana, “Obama in Havana: Turn Back to Human Rights,” The National Interest, February 18, 2016, (accessed March 15, 2016).

[2] Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “White House and Cuba Maneuver Over Obama’s Visit,” The New York Times, March 6, 2016, (accessed March 15, 2016).

[3] Juliet Eilperin and Nick Miroff, “White House Sees Cuba Visit as Chance to Consolidate Gains. Critics See Caving,” The Washington Post, February 18, 2016, (accessed March 15, 2016).

[4] Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, “Algunos Actos de Represion Politica en el Mes de Febrero (Acts of Repudiation in the Month of February),” March 4, 2016, (accessed March 15, 2016).

[5] Natalie Johnson, “As John Kerry Celebrates Embassy Opening, Cuban Dissidents Are Barred from Attending,” The Daily Signal, August 14, 2015, (accessed March 15, 2016).

[6] Christian Solidarity Worldwide, “Unprecedented Crackdown on Religious Freedom,” January 18, 2016, (accessed March 15, 2016).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Megan O’Matz, “Feds Bring Back Fugitive Who Fled to Cuba on Stolen 13-Foot Boat,” The Sun Sentinel, December 8, 2015, (accessed March 15, 2016).

[9] Eugene Robinson, “Exiles,” The Washington Post, July 18, 2004, (accessed March 15, 2016).

[10] Tina Griego, “Cuba Still Harbors One of America’s Most Wanted Fugitives. What Happens to Assata Shakur Now?” The Washington Post, December 20, 2014, (accessed March 15, 2016).


Ana Rosa Quintana

Former Senior Policy Analyst, Latin America