Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Why Only Cuba’s Human Rights Record Is Worth Discussing

Cuba FlagMax Fisher is one of the shining stars over at Vox — very possibly the best person they have there. And he wrote a really useful discussion of the history behind Wednesday’s announcement, Nine Questions About Cuba You Were too Embarrassed to Ask. It is very much worth reading. But I want to discuss the small part of it that annoyed me. It was the seventh thing you were embarrassed to ask about, “I hear that Fidel Castro is a monster who did lots of terrible things. Is that true?” I don’t even like the question, which is prejudicial. And the initial answer just makes it worse, “Oh yes.”

Let me be clear what I am not saying. I’m not saying Castro was a great guy. But I’m not keen on the facile dismissal of him either. And that’s especially the case when George Washington, the father of our country, owned hundreds of slaves. And we haven’t exactly done ourselves proud since then. Right up to the present with Bush’s torture program and Obama’s drone attacks, it would not be hard to dismiss our leaders as “monsters.” But I know what many will say, “You are just putting the worst face on this! Washington freed all his slaves at his death; Bush was trying to keep us save; Obama is managing a war. Have some nuance, man!”


Saudi Arabia FlagNone of the Castro’s notable brutality took place early on in his regime. Isn’t it possible that his behavior was shaped by the fact that the United States — just a few hundred miles from his country — was trying to overthrow him and assassinate him? Of all the things I know him to have done, they were all done against people who could be reasonably claimed to be his enemies. That’s at least better than the United States has managed to do over the last couple of decades. So I have no problem claiming that Castro was an authoritarian dictator who oppressed his own people. How that exactly makes him worse than other rulers I can’t say. If the United States were signing a treaty with Saudi Arabia, I doubt very seriously that Vox would spend hundreds of words describing the brutality of that “friendly” regime.

Vox is really pushing this point. I suppose it is because they want to head off the argument that the embargo shouldn’t be lifted because the Cuban government is so terrible. So their argument is, “Cuba is terrible and that is why the embargo is a bad idea.” I get it. I even agree with it. I don’t think there is any doubt at all that if we had tried to befriend Castro (or Ho Chi Minh or many others) the situation would now be far better. But I think it comes off as extremely self-satisfied to run articles (by another great writer Matt Yglesias) like, Cuba’s Human Rights Record Is Terrible, No Matter What You Think of the Embargo.

Going through the list of things that the Cuban government did, what keeps occurring to me is that generally speaking, Cuba comes off as somewhat to much better than Saudi Arabia[1] — our longtime ally. But more than that, the biggest point made in both articles is that there is no press freedom in Cuba. This is something I think about a lot these days. What does it mean to have press freedom if you don’t use it? The Soviet constitution provided press freedom, it just wasn’t available on a practical level. Maybe the only reason that the United States doesn’t need to interfere with the press (not excessively, anyway; yet) is because the government knows it can depend upon our press to treat official enemies to a higher standard than our friends.

[1] Interesting, both Fisher and Yglesias discussed the treatment of LGBT rights in Cuba. Cuba has indeed been horrible about this. But no mention was made of the fact that the country has made major progress in this regard over the last two decades. The same cannot be said for Saudi Arabia.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

9 thoughts on “Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Why Only Cuba’s Human Rights Record Is Worth Discussing

  1. LGBT rights are hugely important — however they tend to go hand-in-hand with economic growth and religious freedom (just like women’s rights.) Countries, like Cuba, that are poor largely because they are turded on by powerful countries will usually have poor records on LGBT/women’s rights. Israel often mentions the harsh conditions for women and the LGBT community in Palestine as justification for maintaining a garrison state; of course, the garrison state increases religious fundamentalism in Palestine. It’s a direct effect of the occupation, not a good excuse for maintaining it.

    Also notice that when people mention LGBT or women’s rights as a reason why this or that country is shameful, they rarely mention our role in exporting Christian religious fundamentalism worldwide. Several countries have been influenced by our foulest evangelicals to criminalize homosexuality and abortion. Those countries don’t show up on the enemies lists very often. We’ve done a lot of damage on this front in South America, in Uganda (per the Oliver clip), and probably many other places I’m ignorant about. I suppose those preachers weren’t US government agents in any way. Still, we always blamed Russia for every nation that went Communist, whether or not Russia directly had anything to do with it (outside of Eastern Europe, Russia usually had little to do with it) so it’s pretty fair if people blame America for the spread of foul American religious doctrine.


    • It is something coming from a country where still not that much more than half the country is okay with homosexuality and where until quite recently it was way less than half. Remember, in 2008 — the election of Obama — California voted for an anti-gay law. The only reason California was yellow on Oliver’s map is because of our courts.

      I didn’t mean to suggest that LGBT rights are not important. But it’s like in today’s Owen Jones quote: it’s terrible when our enemies do it and just fine when we do it.

      Thanks for the clip. I hadn’t seen that one before. Of course, I read Jeff Sharlet’s books, so I’m fairly up on the situation in Uganda.

      • You didn’t suggest for a second that LGTB rights weren’t important, no possibility any rational person could read your post that way. I was referring to how mainstream commentators pick-and-choose human rights violations to demonize official enemies. I probably put it sloppily. The worst thing is that I’ve written a ton of shit since tonight, and that’s probably even been sloppier.

        So glad you liked the Onziema clip, hope you watched the extended Web interview segment. Oliver has a lot of dumb stuff, but there have been some absolute brilliant bits, and my SO — who usually hates “politics” — has responded strongly to the funny writing on that show. Those segments with Onziema are by far the SO’s favorite. The one on state legislatures worked, too. We’re getting there; the norm of criticizing evil is shifting back towards rationality. Maybe too late, for destruction of the planet and all, but we’re getting there!

        • It wasn’t you. I think I just felt like I didn’t press hard enough on LGBT rights. But that may not even be true. I think in my first draft I didn’t, but then I added a paragraph. Guilty conscious?!

          Probably because he does a weekly show, he is far less likely to miss a major part of an issue the way that Stewart does. I’ve been very impressed. And they’ve kept it up. I keep expecting them to run out of material. But injustice is created at such a rapid pace, there is probably no need for concern.

          Yeah, I did watch it. But strangely, I had to hunt it down. It wasn’t in the playlist. It got almost a million views, which is pretty good for something that one had to look for.

    • It’s always amazing to see people like Pepe Julian Onziema. At my best, I don’t have a hundredth that courage.

      • Well, Onziema probably didn’t either until there was no other option. As far as I understand it, that’s how ferocious change happens.

        • Under the right circumstances, perhaps. But my natural tendency is to hide away. The main thing is that Onziema shows real courage. In America, courage is usually associated with things like storming Osama bin Laden’s compound. Personally, going into a fight with overwhelming military advantage doesn’t impress me that much. Onziema’s only advantage is his reason and humanity. And it would take nothing but a couple of cowards to kill him.

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