In mid-August Tom Malinowski was part of the delegation accompanying John Kerry during his visit to Cuba. The Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights was not only present at the raising of the flag at the embassy in Havana, but met behind closed doors with a group of Cuban activists in the residence of the US charge d’affaires.
Some questions of concern to Cuban civil society and the Cuban exile were included in the questionnaire that Malinowski agreed to answer for 14ymedio via e-mail.
Lilianne Ruiz. Several groups within the Cuban community believe that the historical commitment of the United States in favor of the democratization of the island has weakened since the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.What can you respond to this?
Tom Malinowski. The commitment of my Government to promote universal human rights and democratic principles in Cuba remains as strong as before, as Secretary of State John Kerry said during the opening ceremony of the embassy in Havana on August 14.
“The opening of the embassy has allowed us to increase our contact with the Cuban people”
The opening of the embassy in Havana allows us to advocate more for these values. These changes have already allowed us to increase our contact with the Cuban people. Secretary Kerry and I were able to meet with several activists and other representatives of Cuban civil society on August 14 and it was clear that they are taking advantage of the new situation to push for real change.
Now we have more possibilities to discuss human rights issues with Havana. I met with the Cuban government in March to plan for a future dialogue. It will be more difficult to treat US organizations and other international NGOs as criminals now that Cuba has diplomatic relations with us.
The new approach also facilitates Cubans’ access to information and resources for they themselves to build their own future.
Ruiz. Will the programs that support Cuban civil society change as a result of this?
Malinowski. President Obama has made it clear that the US government will continue the programs that promote universal human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba, as we do in dozens of countries around the world. However, it is possible that the Cuban Executive will maintain its objection to these efforts and try to repress those who are participating in these programs.
After Cuba eliminated many immigration restrictions in 2013, a larger number of members of civil society on the island has been involved in training courses abroad, developing their professional networks.
“The United States and its companies are among Cuba’s largest suppliers for food and health-related products”
Ruiz. The Cuban government alleges that the economic embargo prevents the buying of medicine and medical equipment from the US. For example, there is a shortage of some medicines for cancer treatment in Cuban hospitals. Is there any truth in the statements of the Executive?
Malinowski. The restrictions on transactions with the Cuban government do not apply to medicines or medical equipment. At least since the Act for Democracy in Cuba was approved in 1992, medicines and medical supplies, instruments and equipment are authorized to be exported to Cuba. Far from restricting aid to Cubans, we are proud that the people of the United States and its companies are among its biggest suppliers of food and health-related products. In 2014, US exports to Cuba totaled nearly $ 300 million in agricultural products, medical supplies and humanitarian goods.
One of the advantages of our new policy is that it will be harder for the Cuban government to blame the United States for any humanitarian difficulties which might befall the Cuban people. The United States will do its part, according to its laws, to enhance the success of the self-employed, to improve access to the internet and to increase economic ties between the two peoples, with the objective of benefitting ordinary Cubans. As the Secretary Kerry said, the embargo has always been a two-way street; both sides have to remove the restrictions that prevent Cubans from taking full advantage of these changes.
Ruiz. After December 17, the arbitrary arrests, intimidation and beatings of peaceful activists have continued and the regime refuses to respect fundamental freedoms. How will the US put into practice its commitment to support the defenders of human rights in Cuba?
Malinowski. First of all, we condemn the harassment instigated by the Cuban government, and the use of violence or arbitrary arrests of citizens exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. And we have addressed these points directly to the Government.
When we announced our new policy in December of last year, we said we did not expect that the behavior of the Cuban government would change overnight as a result of the restoration of diplomatic relations. However, we start with the idea that we will be more effective in promoting human rights if we have diplomatic relations and an embassy in Havana, because now the international attention will be focused on the policies of the Cuban government instead of instead of limiting itself to criticizing the embargo.
We have not stopped denouncing human rights violations and we will continue our dialogue with the Cuban Government on these matters, emphasizing the need for it to keep its promise to allow access to international observers.