Cubans are still in agony

The title of the latest Human Rights Watch report on Cuba succinctly describes the dismal state of civil liberties on the island since Raúl Castro took over for his ailing brother in July of 2006: “New Castro, Same Cuba.”

Anyone who thought that the world’s longest-serving little brother would offer a “revolution lite” brand of communism was bound to be disappointed. His decades-long record as the hard-line overseer of Cuba’s loyal military forces contains no signs of flexibility or moderation, and his performance over the past 40 months in place of his brother shows no deviation from this trajectory.

He has attempted to be a more efficient manager of Cuba’s meager resources, impatient with unproductive economic schemes, but little else sets his performance apart from that of his predecessor.

When it comes to human rights, the 123-page report offers overwhelming evidence that he has run a government every bit as repressive as Fidel Castro’s. Not only does the state’s all-seeing, punitive apparatus remain in place, but Raúl has made sure it stays busy.

Ramón Velásquez Toranzo is one of its victims. He set out on a peaceful march across Cuba to call for respect for human rights and freedom for all political prisoners, and was promptly arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for “dangerousness” in January 2007. The report documented more than 40 cases under Raúl Castro in which the government has imprisoned individuals like Velásquez Toranzo under the “dangerousness” provision for exercising basic rights that Cuba denies its citizens.

Meanwhile, beatings like the one blogger Yoani Sánchez experienced recently, short-term detention, “acts of repudiation,” denial of work and brutal treatment of political prisoners remain common features of the machinery of repression.

The case of Alexander Santos Hernandez, a political activist sentenced to four years for “dangerousness,” shows how “due process” works. He told HRW, “[The police] picked me up at 5:50 a.m. while I was at home sleeping, and by 8:30 that morning they were already reading me my sentence.” Denied a lawyer, the sentence he was given was dated two days before his trial took place. Stalin himself would applaud.

The Cuban government’s first response to the report was to vilify the messenger. No surprise there, given that the regime can’t deny the facts. But the claim that the human rights group timed the report to undermine efforts on Capitol Hill to eliminate restrictions on Americans’ travel to Cuba is absurd on its face because HRW opposes the travel ban.

This damning report would have been uncomfortable at any time for the regime. It’s not about U.S. policy but about the way the Cuban government mistreats its own citizens, which can be summed up in one word — miserably. The spotlight shone by HRW reveals that Cuba remains a police state under the Castros, with the ordinary citizen trampled underfoot by the ever-present guardians of state security.

The unchanging nature of the Cuban government is an argument for seeking more effective U.S. policies to undermine the regime’s chokehold of the population. But we must ask if relaxing the travel ban now makes sense. It seems more like a unilateral U.S. concession after 50 years of dictatorship.

The Obama administration has taken several steps to engage Cuba, including opening up travel for Cuban Americans to visit family and more academic and cultural exchanges.

So far, this strategy of engagement, which we support, has gone one way only. Cuba has done nothing to show it’s open to hear its citizens’ concerns or wants to seriously try.