Missing From the Cuba Thaw: Basic Human Rights

President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raúl Castro shake hands as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, right, looks on, before the inauguration of the VII Summit of the Americas in Panama City on April 10, 2015. Arrests and harassment of dissidents continue in Cuba, despite progress on lifting the embargo. Panama Presidency/Reuters

The Cuban government marked a historic first in Panama over the weekend, as the Caribbean island's president, Raúl Castro, joined leaders from around the region at the Summit of the Americas. Despite all the past wounds and ongoing tensions, all 35 countries are sitting down together for the first time.

To understand the significance of this moment, it is important to look back and take stock of the progress Cuba and the region as a whole have made. In 1962, during a meeting in Uruguay, the Organization of American States (OAS), which held this weekend's summit, decided to kick Cuba out of the regional club after Fidel Castro and his followers led a revolution to seize power.

Amid the height of Cold War tensions, the OAS bluntly stated its rationale for such a drastic decision: "The present government of Cuba, which has officially identified itself as a Marxist-Leninist government, is incompatible with the principles and objectives of the Inter-American system."

At the time, military juntas were mushrooming up across the continent, making it hard to believe that human rights, freedoms and dignity drove this regional decision. Over the coming decades, from Cuba's Caribbean neighbors Haiti and the Dominican Republic, to Central America, to the Southern Cone, the Americas saw some of its most horrific governments. But for much of this time, Cuba alone was singled out as a pariah.

Despite being historic, Raúl Castro's recent trip to Panama was an opportunity not to dwell on the past but rather to ask what comes next for the Cuban people.

What does the future hold? This is perhaps one of the constant questions that Ciro Alexis Casanova Pérez asks himself from his prison cell in Villa Clara province in central Cuba. Amnesty International recently named him the latest in a long line of prisoners of conscience on the island, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his legitimate rights to freedom of expression and demonstration.

A dissident activist, Ciro was arrested in June 2014 while on his way to his father's house to celebrate Father's Day. Last December he was found guilty of "public disorder" and sentenced to a year in prison. His crime: holding a peaceful one-man demonstration against the Cuban government in the streets of his hometown, Placetas. He is now counting the days until his release in June.

In today's Cuba, it remains virtually impossible for anyone to peacefully express ideas opposing the Cuban government. All media are under the strict control of the state, as are unions. Despite the subsequent release of dozens of political prisoners early this year, short-term arrests and harassment of political dissidents and human rights activists remain a troubling reality on the island.

The harassment of dissidents sometimes takes the form of acts of repudiation (actos de repudio). These acts are government-coordinated demonstrations, usually carried out in front of the homes of political opponents. During an act of repudiation, political opponents and human rights activists are subjected to verbal and physical abuse by groups of people chanting pro-government slogans.

The leaders of the OAS should press Cuba to improve its human rights record. Governments across the region need to drive home the message that, even if Cuba is inching its way back into the political fold of the OAS, it should be complemented by adhering to the Inter-American human rights system.

Through its bodies—the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights—this regional system has formed a crucial element to complement the human rights protections provided by national bodies in the Americas. Over the years, thousands of victims of human rights violations and their families throughout the continent have found their last hope for justice in these regional courts after being denied it at the national level.

Working within this system, Cuba's government could send the world the message that it now welcomes accountability, transparency and independent monitoring. But so far the message it has been sending is a very different one. Last month when the Inter-American Commission held a hearing on Cuba's human rights record, the seats reserved for the Cuban government delegation remained empty, just like in previous hearings.

This conspicuous absence speaks volumes about Cuba's ongoing unwillingness to be held to the same degree of scrutiny as its peers across the Americas.

For a country to defend its human rights record, it must be accountable to the Inter-American system. A good way to start showing this would be for Cuba to free Ciro Alexis Casanova Pérez immediately and unconditionally, and to make sure he is the last Cuban prisoner of conscience. The time has come to ensure that all opinions can finally be peacefully expressed on the island.

Robin Guittard is Caribbean campaigner at Amnesty International.