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Cuba's human rights record is terrible, no matter what you think of the embargo

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The cruel, ridiculous failure of America's embargo of Cuba combined with the oft-malign role US foreign policy has played elsewhere in Latin America sometimes leads critics of American foreign policy to romanticize the Cuban regime. That's a mistake. Despite the serious flaws of the embargo, anti-Castro activists are right to say that the regime is a major abuser of human rights.

According to Freedom House, Cuba has the most restrictive press censorship in the Western Hemisphere and is the only country rated "not free" in the Americas. All official media is owned by the state and controlled by the government. Dissident bloggers are regularly arrested. According to Amnesty International, protestors are regularly arrested and detained without trial. The Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba says there were over 6,000 arbitrary detentions of human rights activists in 2013.

Once in jail, detainees face harsh conditions. "Prisoners often slept on concrete bunks without a mattress," according to the State Department's human rights report on Cuba, "with some reports of more than one person sharing a narrow bunk. Where available, mattresses were thin and often infested with vermin and insects."

In addition to a lack of free press and free speech, the Cuban government became infamous in the post-revolutionary decades for its persecution of gay and lesbian citizens. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was widespread firing and mass imprisonment or institutionalization (under the guise of mental health) of gay and lesbian Cubans. The repression was so severe that Fidel Castro himself semi-apologized for it in 2010. From 1986 to 1994 the government forcibly confined all HIV-positive Cubans in quarantine.

Finally, the Cuban government gives its population no opportunity whatsoever to vote in fair elections and help shape their government.

But US policy towards Cuba isn't really about human rights. While the Cuban government has a genuinely awful human rights record, it's hard to argue that that explains US policy towards Cuba. While Cuba is the only country in the Western Hemisphere rated "not free" by Freedom House, it's hardly the only such country in the world. The United States conducts normal diplomatic relations with China and Vietnam, who run similarly repressive regimes. And the United States considers not-free states such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Jordan to be close allies worthy not only of normal diplomatic relations but deep military and security assistance.

Cuba policy, in other words, has been driven by Cold War strategy and domestic politics much more than by human rights. That's why with the Cold War issues now obsolete and the domestic politics changing, US policy is set to change too — even without significant change in Cuba's human rights situation.