‘Chaos and Instability’: Human Rights and U.S. Policy Goals in Cuba

October 19, 2011


For a half-century the United States has maintained an economic embargo on Cuba with the express goal of overthrowing the country’s regime. Two main arguments have historically justified this measure. In the Cold War era, Washington asserted that Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union and its behavior internationally constituted a national security threat to the United States. The embargo was therefore necessary to contain a nearby enemy. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the main argument has been that the Cuban regime violates its citizens’ human rights and ought to be overthrown for their benefit. The latter argument has made the embargo a singular U.S. foreign policy measure: It subordinates all other U.S. interests, both economic and strategic, to the altruistic goal of promoting human rights on the island. U.S. policy toward no other country, from China to Russia to Saudi Arabia, has been so exclusively predicated on human rights as Cuba policy has—at least at face value.

Is the embargo really a human rights policy? It is not. We can come to this conclusion not simply because the embargo has not “worked” to improve human rights in Cuba (although the policy’s failure on its own terms is nonetheless notable). Nor because Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other prominent groups have denounced the U.S. embargo as itself a violation of human rights and as tending to provoke the Cuban government into crackdowns on civil liberties. Rather, the problem with the embargo is that human rights as a whole have never been an essential consideration in its design. One right above all others takes precedence in U.S. Cuba policy: the right of Cuban exiles to reclaim their private properties that were nationalized during Cuba’s revolutionary process after 1959. The embargo furthermore reflects Cuban exiles’ desire to punish those who do not accept them as the rulers of Cuba by including measures to “purify” the island of the current government’s upper echelons and many of its followers.

Codifying these goals was the true motivation behind the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996, better known as the Helms-Burton law, the central piece of U.S policy toward Cuba.1 Thanks to its sponsors, Senator Jesse Helms and Congressman Dan Burton, the embargo is the law of the land. The law was passed soon after the Cuban air force shot down two U.S. planes flown by members of Brothers to the Rescue, an exile group, who invaded Cuban airspace and dropped flyers calling on Havana residents to rebel. In the heat of the shootdown, the U.S. Congress passed a law that tied the hands of the executive branch to respond flexibly to developments in the island. As result, the core of U.S. policy toward the island is frozen in the anger of U.S. politics of almost two decades ago.

In making the observation that the embargo’s design has nothing to do with promoting human rights, we refer to the model of human rights policy set forth by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Although these norms are based on an ideology of liberal constitutionalism, promoting a liberal-democratic welfare state, they are more than ideological constructs. They carry the force of international law and represent enforceable obligations of those states that have signed the declaration. Both Cuba and the United States have signed it, and Cuba has agreed to all six covenants established to implement the declaration’s principles—the International  Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (1966), the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966), the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (1965), the Convention Against Torture (1985), the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (1979), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). The United States has signed on to all of these instruments and ratified all but the last.

The declaration’s 30 articles cover a range of rights, including basic freedoms to life and liberty, and freedom from slavery; civil and political rights (freedoms of speech, assembly, association, and religion), and social and economic rights (to food, water, clothing, housing, security, education, employment, and so on). Each of the rights on this relative short list are considered universal, interdependent, and indivisible—such that one right cannot be emphasized to the exclusion or detriment of another. That is, the declaration lists a bundle of rights, all of which states must agree to protect and respect; it is not a menu from which they may freely select.

In the UDHR model, sovereign states are understood to be the agents primarily vested with the responsibility of protecting and promoting human rights inside their countries.2 Other states do have an obligation to protect human rights in countries whose states fail to do so, but the quality and scale of foreign action is highly conditioned. In the case of Cuba, there is no question that citizens and governments outside the country have the right to criticize Cuba’s government or to name and shame human rights violators; there is likewise no question that international institutions like the United Nations and others can take up the issue of human rights violations within member states for discussion.

But such measures must be distinguished from more belligerent actions, including sanctions and especially military intervention. An important precedent on the latter question was set in 1984, when the International Court of Justice ruled in The Republic of Nicaragua v. the United States of America that U.S. support for the Contras’ counter-revolutionary war against the Sandinista government—support often justified by the Reagan government in the name of protecting the human rights of Nicaraguans under a supposedly totalitarian government—had broken international law. “With regard . . . to alleged violations of rights relied on by the United States” as a justification, the ruling found, “the Court considers that the use of force by the United States could not be the appropriate method to monitor or ensure respect for such rights.”3 Neither direct U.S. sponsorship of military action in Cuba, such as the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, nor Cuban exiles’ myriad terrorist actions that were sponsored, supported, or tolerated by the U.S. government are legal under international law.4

Unlike military action, sanctions for the sake of protecting human rights are not banned outright, but they are subject to the general regulations on dispute settlement under Chapter VI of the UN Charter. According to Chapter VI, even the Security Council should take the opinion of other UN organs into consideration when considering sanctions, and search for other peaceful ways to settle disputes such as through the International Court of Justice. According to the General Comment no. 8 of the Economic, Cultural and Social Rights Committee, the international organ in charge of the 1966 UN covenant on these matters, any sanctions regime imposed on a country for the purpose of improving human rights falls into the category of “smart sanctions,” targeting only those responsible for violating human rights. Meanwhile, General Comment no. 8 mandates that the sanctions’ impacts on children, food security, health, and other aspects of the general population’s living conditions be periodically reviewed.5

Sometimes, foreign pressure brings about human rights improvements, and sometimes it mobilizes the population around the targeted government. Well-targeted sanctions that minimize harm to innocent bystanders or victims of human rights abuses are the most effective, as are those that “detail a very clear, credible, and limited number of demands.”6 Moreover, they never amount to a country’s policy toward another, but are rather one set of instruments combined with positive inducements in search of a change in behavior or policy, not regime change.7 Sanctions against apartheid South Africa or countries of the Soviet bloc, for example, were never about changing the regime. They were about pressuring the authorities and creating a propitious domestic context for reforms and openness.8


By almost any standard, the U.S. embargo on Cuba short-changes human rights concerns. From its inception, the embargo was indiscriminate, targeting the whole Cuban population in the hope of provoking an internal revolt. Until 2000, it prohibited food sales to Cuba and even today prevents the sale of medicines, medical equipment, and educational materials. Contrary to prevailing criteria about sanctions, the embargo does not include any official periodic assessment about the impact it has on vulnerable groups and the general population’s rights to food, drinkable water, education, and health.

Furthermore, the embargo opportunistically violates the UDHR’s essential principles of interdependence and indivisibility, conferring a higher value to the right of private property, a right that is at best equal and at worst less important than other rights.9 About a third of the Helms-Burton text (Title III, “Protection of Property Rights of United States Nationals”) is devoted to this issue. Although the text mentions “internationally recognized human rights” several times, the sections dealing with a political transition in Cuba also emphasize the right to own private property, combined with the right to create independent trade unions and the right to competitive elections (205, “Requirements and Factors for Determining a Transition Government,” and 206, “Requirements for Determining a Democratically Elected Government”). No other human rights considerations are given such priority. Now, owning private property is undoubtedly a human right, but it is not absolute and does not have any higher standing in the list of human rights on the UDHR. Indeed, the right of owning property is the only right that appears in the UDHR (Article 17) but does not appear in the hard-law covenants.

Not only that, but Helms-Burton stipulates that ending the embargo is conditioned not upon substantial improvements in human rights, but upon a regime change in Cuba. Normal relations with the United States are predicated on the wholesale stripping-away of the Cuban revolution, which is to be replaced by a liberal-democratic regime that specifically “does not include Fidel Castro or Raul Castro.” Helms Burton calls for the dissolution of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and the department of State Security, Cuba’s internal police apparatus, and demands free and fair multiparty elections in no fewer than 18 months after the proclamation of a transitional government. This is also a case of arbitrary prioritization of a right, in this case electoral rights over the strategic promotion of human rights with an integral vision. Since elections in the context of regime change tend to be destabilizing events, most human rights policies do not advocate such an electoral fallacy by which human rights are considered equivalent to voting alone.

Altogether, sections 205 and 206 of Helms-Burton pay excessive attention to dismantling the revolutionary state and planning elections in Cuba to favor the Cuban political right, as well as to compensating Cuban exiles for properties nationalized after the 1959 revolution. This conditionality violates Cuban sovereignty in ways that make a mockery of self-determination.


The Cuban government and others have argued for years that Cuba is living under siege, as the victim of an illegal U.S. policy aimed at overthrowing the government. According to this argument, the most powerful nation on earth is attempting to isolate the island from its natural markets, not only cutting off most U.S. trade relations, but also illegally requiring third countries to abstain from trading with Cuba—all in an attempt to worsen the daily lives of ordinary Cubans and thereby provoke a rebellion against the government. Meanwhile, the invocation of an external, U.S. threat to Cuban sovereignty and to the safety and well-being of the Cuban citizenry has long served to justify the Cuban government’s restrictions on civil and political rights, especially of travel, speech, and association.

Studies have shown that the deterioration of social and economic indicators in Cuba, the number of political prisoners, and the implementation of emergency laws that limit liberties have all increased in parallel to the strengthening of the embargo.10 For example, the most draconian laws against political dissidence were passed by the Cuban National Assembly in 1996 as a response to the passing of the Helms-Burton law the same year. Law 88, under which dissidents were arrested and condemned to long prison terms in 2003, was passed by the Cuban National Assembly in 1999 as an antidote to the Helms-Burton law. During the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, releases of prisoners, the loosening of travel restrictions, and wider margins of political dissidence accompanied the relaxation of the embargo.

Although the threat of U.S. intervention is not valid to justify the violation of Cubans’ civil rights, it is an accepted view in human rights norms that governments can suspend some rights during emergencies. This government authority is not a carte blanche. It is based on the understanding that there is a link between the prevented danger and the suspended rights, and that emergencies that last too long are suspicious. Many human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Human Rights First, agree that the Cuban government has used emergency pretexts with excessive frequency and for too long.11 That said, there is irrefutable evidence and even confessions from U.S. government officials that the U.S. policy toward Cuba has attempted to overthrow the regime by creating “chaos and instability” on the island.12

These words were used by Roger Noriega, former U.S. undersecretary for hemispheric affairs, to describe U.S. policy goals in Cuba. This is likely the only case in which “chaos” and “instability” have been used to describe a government’s means of promoting human rights.13 Such pronouncements, together with an analysis of the embargo’s codification in the form of Helms-Burton, can lead us to only one conclusion: that the embargo is not a human rights policy but a masquerade for other, less altruistic, interests.



Arturo López-Levy is a lecturer and Ph.D. candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author, with Harlan Abrahams, of Raúl Castro and the New Cuba: A Close-up View of Change (McFarland, 2011).



1. References herein to the Helms-Burton law are drawn from Dianne Rennack and Mark Sullivan, U.S.-Cuban Relations: An Analytic Compendium of U.S. Policies, Laws, and Regulations (Atlantic Council, 2005), 85–131.

2. Jack Donnelly, “The Universal Declaration Model of Human Rights: A Liberal Defense,” Human Rights Working Papers, no. 12 (2001): 1; For a critique of Donnelly’s argument, see Johannes Morsink, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a Norm for Societies in Transition,” Shale Horowitz and Albrecht Schnabel, eds., Human Rights and Societies in Transition (United Nations University Press, 2004).

3. International Court of Justice, Reports of Judgments, Advisory Opinions and Orders 14 (International Court of Justice, 1986): 135.

4. For U.S.-based terror attacks on Cuba, see the documents at the Cuba Documentation Project, National Security Archives, gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/latin_america/cuba.htm.

5. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 8. The Relationship Between Economic Sanctions and Respect for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UN Doc E/1998/22, Annex V, 1997).

6. George López, “Matching Means With Intentions. Sanctions and Human Rights,” in William Schulz, ed., The Future of Human Rights (Penn Press, 2008), 72–83.

7. Ibid.

8. See essays by Pauline Baker and Jack Matlock in Debra Liang Fenton, ed., Implementing U.S. Human Rights Policy (United States Institute of Peace, 2004).

9. For a discussion of human rights interdependence and indivisibility, see Daniel Whelan, Indivisible Human Rights: A History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

10. For evidence of the effect of the embargo on the public health of the Cuban people, see American Association for World Health Report, “Denial of Food and Medicine. The Impact of the U.S embargo on Health and Nutrition in Cuba,” March 1997; For the effects on family-related rights, see Human Rights Watch 17, no. 5, “Families Torn Apart: The High Cost of U.S and Cuban Travel Restrictions” (October 2005).

11. Daniel Wilkinson and Nik Steinberg, “Cuba—A Way Forward,” The New York Review of Books, March 17, 2010; Amnesty International, “Cuba: ‘Essential Measures’? Human Rights Crackdown in the Name of Security,” report, June 3, 2003.

12. Ibid.

13. Quoted in Saul Landau and Nelson P. Valdes, “The Confessions of Roger Noriega,” Counterpunch, September 17, 2010, available at counterpunch.org.


Read the rest of NACLA's September/October 2011 issue: "The Politics of Human Rights."




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