Cuba Must Finally Answer for Decades of Human Rights Violations | Opinion

A quarter-century ago today, on February 24, 1996, four Cuban-American volunteers were murdered in the sky, and the ruins of their two Cessna Skymasters were left sprawled across Caribbean waters. The civilian aircraft were downed by a Cuban-flown Soviet MiG. This was no accident. The fighter pilot and his wingman, as revealed by their radio transmissions, congratulated each other as they soared back to Havana.

The Cuban-American pilots were members of Brothers to the Rescue, a Cuban-exile organization dedicated to promoting democracy on the island and, specifically, rescuing rafters seeking asylum in the United States. The organization had formed in 1991, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba had plunged further into economic despair, which led Castro to "allow" tens of thousands of refugees to undertake a perilous journey for the coasts of Florida.

Especially on this anniversary, Americans must remember that the 1996 shoot-down is only one of the Cuban regime's innumerable evil acts. For decades now, the regime has engaged in unrelenting cruelty and torture. Even more disgusting, it has profited from degrading and enslaving its entire population.

Over the course of those same decades, the United States has all but turned a blind eye to the nefariousness that has taken place just 90 miles away from America—the freest country in the world. No doubt, that is because, with the exception of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Castro regime has not presented the kind of imminent danger that generates interest from political officials in Washington.

But the United States should care a lot about what is happening inside Cuba, because the sheer brutality taking place in its sphere of influence is an embarrassment to the principles upon which our nation was founded.

Perhaps the most powerful weapon of coercion used in Cuba is the psychological torture it inflicts upon its people by exiling, humiliating and shaming anyone who challenges the 1950s-era "revolution." The "counter-revolutionary" label Castro created to isolate anti-Communists is not unlike other isolation techniques used by past totalitarian regimes. Moreover, many of the same dehumanization techniques used in erstwhile fascist regimes were later used in Cuba.

The similarities are chilling. Just as Jews were compared to rats by the Nazis, Cuban dissidents on the island are often referred to by the Castro regime as "worms." The use of that word has become so prevalent that state-sponsored vandalization and harassment of dissidents' homes has become a widely-accepted practice.

Whereas the Nazis degraded Jews by boycotting their businesses and making them walk in the gutters of German streets, the Castro regime has orchestrated acts of mass humiliation against dissidents by lining up school children outside their homes to call them names and throw stones at them.

Cuba during COVID-19
Cuba during COVID-19 YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

Another group the Castro regime has targeted are homosexuals. Even as the LGBT movement continues to grow in the corridors of Havana, activists not aligned with the Communist Party face stinging embarrassment and persecution from Cuban political police. On many occasions, Cuban authorities unlock their smartphones and post revealing photographs and videos to social media to shame homosexuals for their sexual preferences.

Historically, Cuba has also engaged in mass murder. In the early days of the revolution, the Castro regime killed thousands in front of mass firing squads. Unlike other past totalitarian regimes, it has reportedly engaged in medical experimentation on political prisoners. In the past, children have been taken from their parents during the summer and sent to "schools in the countryside," where they were actually used for forced agricultural labor.

Cubans who wanted to leave the island on "freedom flights" were deemed enemies of the state, and were frequently interned in forced labor camps while waiting for their departure.

The Cuban regime has also trafficked medical doctors to foreign countries as a form of indentured servitude. Doctors who have tried to escape the island have often faced persecution and harsh punishment. In other instances, dissidents in desperate need of medical attention, including cancer treatment, have been denied proper medical care simply because of their political activities.

Despite the Cuban regime's systemic sadism, the Obama administration made the naïve decision to begin warming relations with the Castros in 2014. Make no mistake: It is impossible, both morally and geopolitically, to normalize relations with such a horrifically abnormal regime. Even after the United States made political concessions during the Obama era, the Cuban regime did little in exchange to loosen its iron grip over the island. And in many instances, the Communist state has only become even more repressive.

The time has come for the Castro regime to answer for its crimes against its own people. It is not a legitimate government. It is a criminal enterprise that has stolen power, property and countless lives. It has also helped destabilize Venezuela, spurring a regional refugee humanitarian crisis.

America must confront state-sponsored genocide and tyranny. President Biden faces a historic opportunity to take advantage of the pro-democracy surge happening both inside and outside of Cuba. He should reach out to Cuban civil society and Cuban-American leaders to solidify his position as being united with the Cuban people—and not being aligned with, or even sympathetic to, the totalitarian regime.

Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a lawyer and former director of the U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.