One of Cuba’s best-known human rights activists and a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom said Wednesday that the Obama administration’s efforts to restore relations with the Cuban government had undermined American values.
Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, who spent more than nine years as a political prisoner in Cuba until 2011, told U.S. lawmakers that oppression in Cuba continues and the U.S. policies divide the Cuban and American people.
“Congresspersons, don’t allow the creed of the nation, the Bill of Rights, to continue to be violated. Don’t tolerate the separation of the American and Cuban people,” Biscet pleaded. “Yours free, and mine enslaved.”
Biscet was awarded the United States’ highest civilian honor in 2007 in absentia while he was in prison during George W. Bush’s presidency. Biscet was the featured witness at a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing Wednesday on the human rights situation in Cuba.
Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican who chairs the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, called the hearing to highlight ongoing human rights violations and to press the Obama administration to make the issue a higher priority before making any further changes to U.S. policy.
“Our fear that the administration has not been pushing sufficiently for the release of political prisoners and other human rights concerns has only grown,” he said.
The hearing was scheduled on the 22nd anniversary of the deaths of 32 people who drowned when a tugboat with 63 aboard capsized north of Havana while they were trying to flee the island. Survivors say Cuban government ships rammed the tugboat.
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group that tracks human rights and political repression in Cuba, reported more than 8,600 politically motivated detentions in 2015, a 315 percent increase from five years ago. In the first two months of this year, there had already been more than 2,500 arrests.
While Biscet holds the Obama administration responsible for legitimizing the Castro government, not all Cuban activists and dissidents agree. Others say more people are willing to speak out about their frustrations because of the change in relations.
Since embarking on improved relations with Cuba, the Obama administration has eliminated stiff regulations on travel and commerce and has expanded opportunities for Americans to visit the island. But critics say it has not done enough to fight for human rights.
The Obama administration says human rights in Cuba are a priority.
Geoff Thale, program director of the Washington Office on Latin America, which advocates for human rights in the region, said there were serious human rights problems but rapprochement provided opportunities to promote U.S. values and interests on the island. He said the enthusiasm and support with which Obama’s new approach had been greeted on the island had encouraged greater openness from the Cuban government.
“We shouldn’t be naive about that process,” Thale said. “It’ll be slow. It’ll be complicated. There will be difficulties along the way. But in the end the evidence is very strong that a policy of engagement is more likely to contribute to change in Cuba.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, holds Obama responsible for the rise in reported beatings and arrests.
She said his policies had emboldened the Castro brothers.
“That is why we are seeing Cubans leaving the island in droves,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.
Sirley Ávila León, who survived a deadly machete attack she accused the Cuban government of orchestrating, also testified on the rise of human rights violations. She questioned why the Obama administration had not made human rights a more fundamental piece of negotiations with the Cuban government.
“How is it possible that the U.S. government has made so many concessions to the government of Cuba without demanding respect for human rights on the island and justice for the many attacks on civil and political rights of Cubans?” Avila said.