President Donald Trump’s big policy reversal on Cuba last week sent one strong message to the world – human rights is not a consideration in US foreign policy, unless you are the tiny island nation of Cuba, which is always the exception to the rule.
If you detain and torture your citizens, refuse them the right to express themselves and fail to hold any democratic elections, Trump will support you without asking any questions or giving you a lecture on human rights. When Trump visited Saudi Arabia recently he explicitly stated that the US would not be giving any lectures on human rights to the Arab world.
But Cuba will always be the exception. The reason being that the US will never let Cuba get away with maintaining independent domestic or foreign policies from within its backyard. Successive US administrations since 1960 felt the need to punish such defiance with every means necessary, until President Barak Obama tried to dilute American arrogance to some extent.
But US self-righteousness on human rights is back on full display, coming just a month after Trump declared his intent to totally disregard the human rights abuses of some of the world’s worst governing culprits.
The irony is mind boggling - Cuba is depicted as an egregious human rights abuser, while it is the US which maintains an illegal military base on that island, in which it has perpetrated some of the worst human rights abuses imaginable. The people who the US military have tortured and abused in Guantanamo Bay have never had the opportunity to defend their innocence in a court of law.
If one were to draw up an objective human rights score card of the United States compared to Cuba, the US would not come out on top. The evaluation would have to take into account the rampant racial discrimination of American officialdom, the prevalent abuse of African Americans, discrimination against Muslim refugees, domestic wage inequality, and the fact that with Trump’s dismantlement of Obamacare, 23 million Americans will be left without health insurance.
On the issue of torture, is it not Trump that defended previously sanctioned US torture tactics, and had his officials produce a draft executive order to bring back torture? That draft order was published by the New York Times. Torture was a key part of Trump’s national security platform as a presidential candidate. Republican Senator John McCain, himself a torture survivor, responded to Trump’s statements by saying that, “the President can sign whatever executive orders he likes. But the law is the law. We are not bringing back torture in the United States of America.”
Cuba, on the other hand, does not publicly defend the right to torture its citizens or those of other countries. It guarantees the right of its citizens to health, education, social security, food, peace and development. When the US criticises Cuba for harbouring a fugitive of American justice, Trump is specifically referring to the asylum Cuba gave to American black activist Joanne Chesimard in 1984, who had been convicted of the killing of a white American policeman. Trump is calling for her extradition.
The human rights score card would also have to take into consideration the foreign involvement of both countries around the globe. America would score dismally considering its illegal military intervention in Iraq based on lies presented to the international community about weapons of mass destruction.
It would also look at the human rights abuses its forces committed in Abu Ghraib detention facility, as well as the countless black spots where it carried out rendition in order to torture people in secret with impunity. Then there are the countless killings of terror suspects by US drones and bombs – none of the victims ever having the chance to defend their innocence.
As Cuba stated in its reaction to Trump’s policy reversal, Cuba is a State Party to 44 international instruments on human rights, while the US is only party to approximately 18. Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez couldn’t have been more accurate in his depiction of Trump’s policy statement as a “grotesque spectacle straight from the Cold War.”
It is almost laughable that Trump said his policy position could be subject to negotiation if Cuba adheres to US demands to: end the abuse of dissidents, release political prisoners, refrain from jailing innocent people, institute political and economic reforms, and extradite Joanne Chesimard. Surely this list should be the yardstick with which Trump should evaluate his own country’s human rights abuses? As Cuba said in its official reaction – “the US is not in the condition to lecture us on human rights.”
Why should South Africa care if Trump engages in the usual American double standards on Cuba? As our foreign policy is based on progressive internationalism, we have a responsibility on that basis to officially raise our concerns about the glaring injustice in America’s international relations.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Group Foreign Editor