US Hypocritical Lectures to Cuba

U.S. officials love to lecture Cuba about its human rights flaws, but – in many ways – Cuba offers equal or better protection of human rights than does the United States, says Marjorie Cohn.

By Marjorie Cohn

In advance of President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba on March 20, there is speculation about whether he can pressure Cuba to improve its human rights. But a comparison of Cuba’s human rights record with that of the United States shows that the U.S. should be taking lessons from Cuba.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains two different categories of human rights – civil and political rights on the one hand; and economic, social and cultural rights on the other.

Civil and political rights include the rights to life, free expression, freedom of religion, fair trial, self-determination; and to be free from torture, cruel treatment, and arbitrary detention.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2003. (Photo credit: Antonio Milena - ABr)

Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2003. (Photo credit: Antonio Milena – ABr)


Economic, social and cultural rights comprise the rights to education, healthcare, social security, unemployment insurance, paid maternity leave, equal pay for equal work, reduction of infant mortality; prevention, treatment and control of diseases; and to form and join unions and strike.

These human rights are enshrined in two treaties – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The United States has ratified the ICCPR.

But the U.S. refuses to ratify the ICESCR. Since the Reagan administration, it has been U.S. policy to define human rights only as civil and political rights. Economic, social and cultural rights are dismissed as akin to social welfare, or socialism. The U.S. government criticizes civil and political rights in Cuba while disregarding Cubans’ superior access to universal housing, health care, education, and its guarantee of paid maternity leave and equal pay rates.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government has committed serious human rights violations on Cuban soil, including torture, cruel treatment, and arbitrary detention at Guantanamo. And since 1960, the United States has expressly interfered with Cuba’s economic rights and its right to self-determination through the economic embargo.

The U.S. embargo of Cuba, now a blockade, was initiated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower during the Cold War in response to a 1960 memo written by a senior State Department official. The memo proposed “a line of action that makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the [Castro] government.”

That goal has failed, but the punishing blockade has made life difficult in Cuba. In spite of that inhumane effort, however, Cuba guarantees its people a remarkable panoply of human rights.


Unlike in the United States, healthcare is considered a right in Cuba. Universal healthcare is free to all. Cuba has the highest ratio of doctors to patients in the world at 6.7 per 1,000 people. The 2014 infant mortality rate was 4.2 per 1,000 live births – one of the lowest in the world.

Healthcare in Cuba emphasizes prevention, rather than relying only on medicine, partly due to the limited access to medicines occasioned by the U.S. blockade. In 2014, the Lancet Journal said, “If the accomplishments of Cuba could be reproduced across a broad range of poor and middle-income countries the health of the world’s population would be transformed.” Cuba has developed pioneering medicines to treat and prevent lung cancer, and prevent diabetic amputations. Because of the blockade, however, we in the United States cannot take advantage of them.


Free education is a universal right up to and including higher education. Cuba spends a larger proportion of its GDP on education than any other country in the world. “Mobile teachers” are deployed to homes if children are unable to attend school. Many schools provide free morning and after-school care for working parents who have no extended family. It is free to train to be a doctor in Cuba. There are 22 medical schools in Cuba, up from only three in 1959 before the Cuban Revolution.


Elections to Cuba’s national parliament (the National Assembly) take place every five years and elections to regional Municipal Assemblies every 2.5 years. Delegates to the National Assembly then elect the Council of State, which in turn appoints the Council of Ministers from which the President is elected.

As of 2018 (the date of the next general election in Cuba), there will be a limit of no more than two five-year terms for all senior elected positions, including the President. Anyone can be nominated to be a candidate. It is not required that one be a member of the Communist Party (CP). No money can be spent promoting candidates and no political parties (including the CP) are permitted to campaign during elections. Military personnel are not on duty at polling stations; school children guard the ballot boxes.

Labor Rights

Cuban law guarantees the right to voluntarily form and join trade unions. Unions are legally independent and financially autonomous, independent of the CP and the state, funded by members’ subscriptions. Workers’ rights protected by unions include a written contract, a 40-44-hour week, and 30 days’ paid annual leave in the state sector.

Unions have the right to stop work they consider dangerous. They have the right to participate in company management, to receive management information, to office space and materials, and to facility time for representatives. Union agreement is required for lay-offs, changes in patterns of working hours, overtime, and the annual safety report. Unions also have a political role in Cuba and have a constitutional right to be consulted about employment law. They also have the right to propose new laws to the National Assembly.


Women make up the majority of Cuban judges, attorneys, lawyers, scientists, technical workers, public health workers and professionals. Cuba is ranked first in Save the Children’s “Lesser Developed Countries” Mother’s Index. With over 48 percent women MPs, Cuba has the third highest percentage of female parliamentarians in the world. Women receive nine months of full salary during paid maternity leave, followed by three months at 75 percent of full salary. The government subsidizes abortion and family planning, places a high value on pre-natal care, and offers “maternity housing” to women before giving birth.

Life Expectancy

In 2013, the World Health Organization listed life expectancy for women in Cuba at 80; the figure was 77 for men. The probability of dying between ages 15 and 60 years per 1,000 people in the population was 115 for men and 73 for women in Cuba.

During the same period, life expectancy for women in the United States was 81 for women and 76 for men. The probability of dying between 15 and 60 per 1,000 people was 128 for men and 76 for women in the United States.

Death Penalty

A study by Cornell Law School found no one under sentence of death in Cuba and no one on death row in October 2015. On Dec. 28, 2010, Cuba’s Supreme Court commuted the death sentence of Cuba’s last remaining death row inmate, a Cuban-American convicted of a murder carried out during a 1994 terrorist invasion of the island. No new death sentences are known to have been imposed since that time.

By contrast, as of Jan. 1, 2016, 2,949 people were on death row in state facilities in the United States. And 62 were on federal death row as of March 16, 2016, according to Death Penalty Information.

Sustainable Development

In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a leading global environmental organization, found that Cuba was the only country in the world to have achieved sustainable development. Jonathan Loh, one of the authors of the WWF report, said, “Cuba has reached a good level of development according to United Nations’ criteria, thanks to its high literacy level and a very high life expectancy, while the ecological footprint is not large since it is a country with low energy consumption.”

Stop Lecturing Cuba and Lift the Blockade

When Cuba and the U.S. held talks about human rights a year ago, Pedro Luis Pedroso, head of the Cuban delegation, said, “We expressed our concerns regarding discrimination and racism patterns in US society, the worsening of police brutality, torture acts and extrajudicial executions in the fight on terror and the legal limbo of prisoners at the US prison camp in Guantanamo.”

The hypocrisy of the U.S. government in lecturing Cuba about its human rights while denying many basic human rights to the American people is glaring. The United States should lift the blockade. Obama should close Guantanamo and return it to Cuba.

Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. Follow her on Twitter at @marjoriecohn.


6 comments for “US Hypocritical Lectures to Cuba

  1. Don Durivan
    March 21, 2016 at 12:23

    Imagine if we considered the United States record on “human rights” abroad just in the last 16 years, representing the Bush and Obama Administrations, or, as many abroad would call them, “regimes”. There are now, by most reasonable accounts, 1 million Iraqis dead, arising either directly from the war/occupation, or as an outgrowth of the policy. I would add “unnecessarily dead” Iraqis. Turn to Libya, and Mr. Obama’s (via Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power) “smart power” policy on Libya. With Libya officially a failed state for at least the last year, imagine what has become of their established system of free education through university level, health care for all policy, and perhaps even their food access/distribution program, equal, according to the World Food Programme of the U.N., to the U.S., Australia, Canada, and western Europe, as of the period up to the war waged upon the country in 2011, by the US, France and Britain.

    We don’t like to look in the mirror, as a country. Perhaps it’s a bit frightening.

    Thank you, Marjorie, for your contribution.


  2. March 20, 2016 at 18:50

    I walked the Barrios of Havana a few years back and talked to quite a few people. I introduced myself as a sociologist from California, where I was born and raised; it is a recognizable place name. My camera was very small. I was invited into several small homes. Photos are presented on

    PS > US citizens could always go to Cuba. State Department directions were a manual of 25-30 pages of complete garble. The middle of the first page clearly explains that you don’t have to contact the department again to travel to Cuba. One is advised to keep receipts in case embargo questions come up. Anyone looking past the smoke and mirrors could qualify to go.

    Note: The first question I was asked upon entering the José Martí airport was how do you feel? Fine. (I was in the medical system). When I handed my passport to the inspector, he looked at it and handed it back with a smile. “No. No.” I said, “Stamp it.” He lightly stamped it. I handed it back and pounded my fist on the counter. He dipped his stamp in ink and stamped it for real. Coming back in; the inspector looked at my passport and pleasantly mentioned I had a beard now. “Yeah. The imported blades cut up my skin.” We both laughed. “Welcome home.” He said it with an eye to eye smile.

    Never forget you are an American Citizen in all the Americas. There are dangerous outlaw governments. Cuba is not one of them.

  3. Ethan Boger
    March 20, 2016 at 07:50

    Why compare Cuba to the US? Compare it instead to its peers in the Carib and Central America. Compare its violent death rate to Honduras. Its respect for human rights to Guatemala. And yet, both countries enjoy US support to corrupt fascistic regimes.

  4. Eddie
    March 19, 2016 at 13:55

    Yes, the US lecturing Cuba (or any other country in the world for that matter) about its human rights problems is analogous to a Stalin/Hitler/Pol-Pot/etc lecturing a Jeffrey Dahmer/Ted Bundy/John Wayne Gacy/etc about how absolutely evil it is to strangle innocent people. The lecturer would have NO moral/ethical standing or authority, so the lectured should dismiss out of hand ANY statements they make regarding morality/ethics. Obviously, no ethical/moral person would ever dispute the basic truth that it IS absolutely evil it is to strangle innocent people, but when someone who has been directly responsible for 100s of THOUSANDS of times MORE victims (though perhaps not through strangling) tries to adopt a self-righteous posture on a separate, narrowly defined sub-category that fails to mention his own horrible, hugely proportionally greater murders, any sensible moderately skeptical person should ignore that lecturer because they’re not arguing from a moral/ethical perspective, but rather a manipulative, Machiavellian POV. (At a non-philosophical level, its like the infomercial/huckster salesman who will salt his spiel with a couple of indisputable truths here and there to try to establish himself as a truthful person and a reliable source of information, but it’s just a setup to then elide into dubious or false claims.)

  5. Bill Bodden
    March 19, 2016 at 12:33

    No matter what Obama says during his Cuba visit his words will be regarded with great skepticism.

  6. Marilyn Potter
    March 19, 2016 at 11:15

    This will reflect Obama’s legacy in a very negative way. I am very regretful that I believed him and voted for him. M

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