Friday, January 9, 2009

On Freedom

So I was reading through the Miami Herald stories on Cuba the other day, and ran into this one: Rights Group Prods Obama to Lift Cuba Travel Ban. And boy was I surprised to read who the group was.

Freedom House describes itself as "an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world." But, before you go running for the hills, Freedom House does not have the same agenda of Pres. George W. Bush.

I'm sure some of us still remember Bush's 2005 inauguration speech stating that "the best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world." Then, a few days later, 50 US Marines were killed in a helicopter accident in Iraq, with 2006 and 2007 becoming deadlier and deadlier for US troops.

Freedom House does not advocate a military strategy. Instead, they support "nonviolent civic initiatives." And, despite justified criticism of its funding ties from the US State Department, Freedom House has recently made impressive steps in its independent analysis of freedom in the world.

One impressive report from Freedom House came out in May of last year. It was called Today's American: How Free? According to them, it was "the first time that Freedom House, best known for its annual survey of the state of freedom around the world, has produced a book-length report on an individual country." According to the Washington Times, the report found "significant flaws in the U.S. criminal justice system, counter-terrorism strategies and the treatment of minorities and immigrants."

The chapter on counter-terrorism policies summarizes "
that a number of the actions taken by the [Bush] administration in its war on terrorism present genuine threats to the individual rights of American citizens and of foreign citizens caught up in the counter-terrorism net."

The chapter on racial inequality shows "that poverty for blacks remains far higher than for whites and indeed exceeds the rate for most immigrant groups, including groups that have come to America in substantial numbers only recently."

Back to Cuba, Freedom House has continuously reported on the Cuban government's repression of its citizens' political and civil rights (2002-2008 Country Report on Cuba available). They've repeated described Cuba as the "Worst of the Worst" [PDF] when it comes to freedom for its people. And, my criticism would be that Freedom House, unlike other rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, does not make policy recommendations in its reports. But, that may now change.

This past Wednesday, Freedom House called for a reassessment of current US policy towards Cuba. Freedom House's executive director, Jennifer Windsor, states:

"Cuba remains one of the most repressive countries in the world... It is well past time to reassess a policy that impedes the ability of American citizens to freely interact with Cubans on a large scale and thus expose them to unfettered information about the outside world. We call on the incoming administration of Barack Obama to reexamine the embargo and to immediately lift the restrictions on remittances and travel to and from the island."

"While the Bush administration expanded American support for democracy activists in Cuba, U.S. policy would be even more effective if Americans were allowed to engage more freely with Cuban counterparts... Those countries that have moved from dictatorship to democracy in recent decades have done so in large part because of the movement of people and ideas across borders."

These comments from Freedom House also follow a recent report based on nearly 180 interviews of Cubans on the island. The report, called Change in Cuba, found that "Cubans see little prospect for change, and even the prospect for change seems to give them more anxiety than hope. There is widespread fear that political change will bring crime and insecurity to Cuba."

Also, Cubans "are uninformed or misinformed about Cuba's democracy movement. The Catholic Church provides a small space for some cultural and social activities, but respondents did not see the Church stretching beyond this into a civil or political role. Young Cubans, while particularly disillusioned, are usually apathetic. The most common response to government injustice is to complain and conform."

While this Freedom House report on Cuba is an informal investigation of Cuban attitudes (unlike Gallup's 2007 survey of 1000 Cubans from Havana and Santiago) and filled with anecdotal observations, the conclusions are still worth considering.

"Cubans must find ways to initiate and encourage civic engagement by their fellow citizens. Democracy activists and other civil society actors (e.g. artists, musicians, religious groups, youth groups) have created a space, however small, within which to act with relative independence from the state. Encouraging these groups to continue creating space for civic activity and to expand their outreach may help ordinary citizens take the initial step of participating in small-scale, low-risk activity."

The recommendation to lift the US travel ban on Cuba is also based on the premise of "[p]olicies that contribute to the strength of movements of civic mobilization [that] may make the difference in the struggle to replace dictatorship with a democratic order." Those are some of the findings of another recent Freedom House study.

I believe these are very important statements from Freedom House, and should be seriously considered by our political leaders. Embracing our rights of movement and travel opens up so many possibilities that can enhance the lives of not only Cubans, but of ourselves.

If you want to do more to support the right to travel to Cuba, please check out the TakeAction page at the Latin American Working Group, and John McAuliff's blog which includes several goods links and an online petition calling on the Obama adminsitration for "a policy of engagement and diplomacy" with Cuba.