How Brexit could help protect human rights in Cuba

Aida Vazquez-Soto

July 24, 2020

On Sunday 26 July, Cuba will mark 67 years since the beginning of its revolutionary movement. On 26 July 1953, the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks would trigger the beginning of a communist political and economic revolution that continues to dominate Cuba.

For the better part of the last four decades, the European Union has been appeasing, funding and supporting a brutal regime in Cuba. In that same period, Cuba has continued to brutalise, imprison and torture its citizens with impunity. With the UK’s formal exit from the EU coming in December, now is the time for the UK to break with European orthodoxy and speak out in support of human rights in Cuba.

Since 1988, the EU has played press secretary to the regime, criticising American action against Cuba and funnelling millions of euros in trade and foreign investment to the corrupt leadership. In 2016, in its annual report on human rights and democracy, the EU referred to Cuba as a “one-party democracy”, whitewashing the way that Cuba maintains the power of its single party. In 2017, the Economist reported that alternative candidates to the Communist party, even in local elections, are often arrested or detained on false charges ahead of filing deadlines, preventing them from becoming viable options.

In 2019, the EU spoke out against the activation of the Helms-Burton Act by the United States, a 1996 piece of legislation which would allow US nationals with claims to confiscated property in Cuba to sue for restitution against persons “trafficking” in that property, including international corporations using nationalized property in Cuba. Rather than support Cuban-American citizens, victimized by the Cuban government through the theft of their property, the EU instead chose to issue a statement accusing the US of causing “unnecessary friction” in the US-EU trading relationship.

In September 2019, a trade visit spearheaded by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini sparked controversy. Mogherini opted to ignore the standard practice of meeting political opposition in Cuba, instead focusing her talks on oppressor-in-chief, President Miguel Diaz-Canel. The resulting protests led to hundreds of arrests, including the six-month imprisonment of Jose Daniel Ferrer, a leading pro-democracy activist.

Ferrer’s treatment at the hands of the Cuban government included false imprisonment, being denied contact with his family or lawyer for more than 100 days, threats from guards claiming he would not leave prison with his life and eventually a false accusation of assault which the “victim” now says never occurred. It wasn’t enough for Cuba to simply arrest the man. They needed to discredit him and his movement. While the United States condemned Cuba’s treatment of Ferrer, the EU remained silent.

In 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic raged, Italy participated in Cuba’s modern slave trade, accepting Cuban doctors to treat sick Italian citizens. In 2019, BBC News reported on the different techniques the Cuban government employs to keep doctors on foreign missions compliant, including the removal of the doctors’ passports on arrival, the threat of exile or arrest and a developed network of doctor-spies who inform on their patients and colleagues. This on top of the Cuban government taking anything between 75 to 80 per cent of wages earned by these doctors through their service.

Jose Daniel’s experience of Cuba is one the EU chooses to support. The slavery of Cuban doctors actively benefits the EU.  Today, the European Union is Cuba’s top trading partner and the source of more than a third of all tourists to Cuba. The EU’s philosophy of discourse over coercion has done little to mitigate continued human rights abuses and in fact, its soft-handed approach has simply given Cuba a multi-million Euro subsidy to continue these abuses.

It is obvious the European Union is happy to overlook these crimes by the Cuban state if it means continued access to pristine beaches and vintage cars for their citizens. What are the lives of political prisoners if you can drink a Cuba libre with a hand-rolled cigar on a Cuban beach?

This is why the UK can and must do better. Cuba’s system of medical slavery supports the maintenance of other authoritarian regimes like Nicolas Maduro’s in Venezuela. The systemic deprivation of choice and civil liberties oppresses the people on the island. To do anything less than condemn the system is to condone it. The EU has chosen to align itself with the legacy of Castro, but the UK need not do the same. Brexit offers a unique opportunity for Britain to abandon the shadowy work of the EU and begin anew supporting human rights in Cuba. The government should seize that opportunity.

In the middle of a Covid-19 recession, why should the UK commit any money to Cuba? The answer is it shouldn’t. Cuba is an unscrupulous and amoral drain for any investment a foreign government sinks, taking money that would restart a people’s economy and putting it in the pockets of dirty Communist party leaders like President Diaz-Canel.

Instead, Britain should pursue targeted sanctions against the Cuban government and its officials. Embargoes are expensive, unpopular and difficult to target. Sanctions that focus on the bank accounts and influence of Cuban government officials would spare the common Cuban citizen from repercussions while putting pressure on the Cuban government to reconsider its stance on freedom of expression. It also lessens the gains from the embezzlement of state resources, including foreign investment.

The soft power of the UK, consistently ranked highest in the world, means that British leadership on the issue of Cuban rights has a real chance at making change. Simply recognising the plight of the embattled opposition in Cuba would be an important shift in the discourse surrounding Cuba. As the UK begins negotiating its post-Brexit trade deals, the shift to an American-facing policy on Cuba could help set a positive tone as the US and UK work towards a free trade agreement.

The UK might even be able to secure exemptions or protections from the Helms-Burton Act for British companies if it is willing to work with the US on pressuring Cuba. If Britain is serious about reaffirming its strong trading relationship with the US and, more importantly, about affirming its support for civil liberties, the first step is to stand for human rights in Cuba.


  • Aida Vazquez-Soto

    Aida Vazquez-Soto is a development associate at the Tax Foundation. She was formerly a development intern at the Reason Foundation and a local coordinator with Students for Liberty.

Written by Aida Vazquez-Soto

Aida Vazquez-Soto is a development associate at the Tax Foundation. She was formerly a development intern at the Reason Foundation and a local coordinator with Students for Liberty.


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