By Marjorie Cohn
"The US government criticizes civil and
political rights in Cuba while disregarding
Cubans’ superior access to universal housing,
health care, education, and its guarantee of
paid maternity leave and equal pay rates."
advance of President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba on March 20,
there is speculation about whether he can pressure Cuba to improve its
human rights. But a comparison of Cuba’s human rights record with that
of the United States shows that the US should be taking lessons from
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains two different
categories of human rights – civil and political rights on the one
hand; and economic, social and cultural rights on the other.
Civil and political rights include the rights to life, free expression,
freedom of religion, fair trial, self-determination; and to be free
from torture, cruel treatment, and arbitrary detention.
Economic, social and cultural rights comprise the rights to education,
healthcare, social security, unemployment insurance, paid maternity
leave, equal pay for equal work, reduction of infant mortality;
prevention, treatment and control of diseases; and to form and join
unions and strike.
These human rights are enshrined in two treaties – the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The United
States has ratified the ICCPR.
But the US refuses to ratify the ICESCR. Since the Reagan
administration, it has been US policy to define human rights only as
civil and political rights. Economic, social and cultural rights are
dismissed as akin to social welfare, or socialism.
The US government criticizes civil and political rights in Cuba while
disregarding Cubans’ superior access to universal housing, health care,
education, and its guarantee of paid maternity leave and equal pay
Meanwhile, the US government has committed serious human rights
violations on Cuban soil, including torture, cruel treatment, and
arbitrary detention at Guantanamo. And since 1960, the United States
has expressly interfered with Cuba’s economic rights and its right to
self-determination through the economic embargo.
The US embargo of Cuba, now a blockade, was initiated by President
Dwight D. Eisenhower during the Cold War in response to a 1960 memo
written by a senior State Department official. The memo proposed “a
line of action that makes the greatest inroads in denying money and
supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about
hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the [Castro] government.”
That goal has failed, but the punishing blockade has made life
difficult in Cuba. In spite of that inhumane effort, however, Cuba
guarantees its people a remarkable panoply of human rights.
Unlike in the United States, healthcare is considered a right in Cuba.
Universal healthcare is free to all. Cuba has the highest ratio of
doctors to patients in the world at 6.7 per 1,000 people. The 2014
infant mortality rate was 4.2 per 1,000 live births – one of the lowest
in the world.
Healthcare in Cuba emphasizes prevention, rather than relying only on
medicine, partly due to the limited access to medicines occasioned by
the US blockade. In 2014, the Lancet Journal said, “If the
accomplishments of Cuba could be reproduced across a broad range of
poor and middle-income countries the health of the world’s population
would be transformed.” Cuba has developed pioneering medicines to treat
and prevent lung cancer, and prevent diabetic amputations. Because of
the blockade, however, we in the United States cannot take advantage of
Free education is a universal right up to and including higher
education. Cuba spends a larger proportion of its GDP on education than
any other country in the world. “Mobile teachers” are deployed to homes
if children are unable to attend school. Many schools provide free
morning and after-school care for working parents who have no extended
family. It is free to train to be a doctor in Cuba. There are 22
medical schools in Cuba, up from only 3 in 1959 before the Cuban
Elections to Cuba’s national parliament (the National Assembly) take
place every five years and elections to regional Municipal Assemblies
every 2.5 years. Delegates to the National Assembly then elect the
Council of State, which in turn appoints the Council of Ministers from
which the President is elected.
As of 2018 (the date of the next general election in Cuba), there will
be a limit of no more than two five-year terms for all senior elected
positions, including the President. Anyone can be nominated to be a
candidate. It is not required that one be a member of the Communist
Party (CP). No money can be spent promoting candidates and no political
parties (including the CP) are permitted to campaign during elections.
Military personnel are not on duty at polling stations; school children
guard the ballot boxes.
Cuban law guarantees the right to voluntarily form and join trade
unions. Unions are legally independent and financially autonomous,
independent of the CP and the state, funded by members’ subscriptions.
Workers’ rights protected by unions include a written contract, a
40-44-hour week, and 30 days’ paid annual leave in the state sector.
Unions have the right to stop work they consider dangerous. They have
the right to participate in company management, to receive management
information, to office space and materials, and to facility time for
representatives. Union agreement is required for lay-offs, changes in
patterns of working hours, overtime, and the annual safety report.
Unions also have a political role in Cuba and have a constitutional
right to be consulted about employment law. They also have the right to
propose new laws to the National Assembly.
Women make up the majority of Cuban judges, attorneys, lawyers,
scientists, technical workers, public health workers and professionals.
Cuba is ranked first in Save the Children’s ‘Lesser Developed
Countries’ Mother’s Index. With over 48% women MPs, Cuba has the third
highest percentage of female parliamentarians in the world. Women
receive 9 months of full salary during paid maternity leave, followed
by 3 months at 75% of full salary. The government subsidizes abortion
and family planning, places a high value on pre-natal care, and offers
‘maternity housing’ to women before giving birth.
In 2013, the World Health Organization listed life expectancy for women
in Cuba at 80; the figure was 77 for men. The probability of dying
between ages 15 and 60 years per 1,000 people in the population was 115
for men and 73 for women in Cuba.
During the same period, life expectancy for women in the United States
was 81 for women and 76 for men. The probability of dying between 15
and 60 per 1,000 people was 128 for men and 76 for women in the United
A study by Cornell Law School found no one under sentence of death in
Cuba and no one on death row in October 2015. On December 28, 2010,
Cuba’s Supreme Court commuted the death sentence of Cuba’s last
remaining death row inmate, a Cuban-American convicted of a murder
carried out during a 1994 terrorist invasion of the island. No new
death sentences are known to have been imposed since that time.
By contrast, as of January 1, 2016, 2,949 people were on death row in
state facilities in the United States. And 62 were on federal death row
as of March 16, 2016, according to Death Penalty Information.
In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a leading global environmental
organization, found that Cuba was the only country in the world to have
achieved sustainable development. Jonathan Loh, one of the authors of
the WWF report, said, “Cuba has reached a good level of development
according to United Nations’ criteria, thanks to its high literacy
level and a very high life expectancy, while the ecological footprint
is not large since it is a country with low energy consumption.”
Stop Lecturing Cuba and Lift the Blockade
When Cuba and the US held talks about human rights a year ago, Pedro
Luis Pedroso, head of the Cuban delegation, said, “We expressed our
concerns regarding discrimination and racism patterns in US society,
the worsening of police brutality, torture acts and extrajudicial
executions in the fight on terror and the legal limbo of prisoners at
the US prison camp in Guantanamo.”
The hypocrisy of the US government in lecturing Cuba about its human
rights while denying many basic human rights to the American people is
glaring. The United States should lift the blockade. Obama should close
Guantanamo and return it to Cuba.
BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator Marjorie Cohn
has been a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law since 1991. In
summer 2016, she will become Professor Emeritus, and will continue to
lecture, write, and provide media commentary. A former news consultant
for CBS News and a legal analyst for Court TV, Professor Cohn has been
a legal and political commentator on BBC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, NPR,
and Pacifica Radio.
| is published every Thursday
David A. Love, JD
Nancy Littlefield, MBA