CAPITOL HILL - Supporters and critics of U.S. President Barack Obama’s history-making trip to Cuba later this month agree on one thing: there has been little, if any, progress on basic liberties and human rights on the island since Washington and Havana restored full diplomatic ties.
While tourists flock to Cuba as never before, Cubans continue to flee the island to reach the United States, often taking a circuitous route from western Cuba to Central America and traveling north through Mexico to reach the U.S. border.
“The American dream – it’s the best, the best in the world,” said a Cuban who only identified himself as Luan while waiting at the border checkpoint at Cuidad Juarez, Mexico. “We’ve escaped the Castros.”
“I’m going to Cuba,” Obama announced last month. “I believe that the best way to advance American interests and values, and the best way to help the Cuban people improve their lives, is through engagement.”
International human rights organizations have yet to release annual reports covering the months since August, when the United States opened an embassy in Havana and Cuba opened one in Washington.
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reported more than 1,400 political arrests on the island this past January, continuing a surge of such detentions over the last year.
U.S. lawmakers have taken note.
“Last year there were documented 8,616 political arrests in Cuba, a huge increase,” said Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American. “By any objective measure, the Castro regime has not improved its human rights record. If anything, it has gotten worse.”
Even those who support the rapprochement between Washington and Havana concede that Cuba’s progress on human rights has been slow.
“I think it’s very hard to point to real change,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “This is going to take a long time.
"This is a government and a system that has been entrenched since 1959. There is a lot of resistance to change, and I think it’s too early to tell which direction Cuba will go in," Shifter said.
Top administration officials have said they never expected a swift transformation in Cuba, but hope to advance change on the island. For his part, Obama promised to be vocal.
“I’ll speak candidly about our serious differences with the Cuban government, including on democracy and human rights. I’ll reaffirm that the United States will continue to stand up for universal values like freedom of speech and assembly and religion,” he said.
Cuban officials say no topic is off the table.
“Cuba is open to discuss any issue with the U.S. government, including human rights,” said Cuban Foreign Ministry official Josefina Vidal.
Such assertions do not satisfy Obama’s critics.
“There are no elections in Cuba,” said Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American and former Republican presidential candidate. “There are no choices in Cuba, and so my whole problem is I want the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba to change, but it has to be reciprocal."
Others are more hopeful about the trip.
“It represents a way of trying to get the Castro government perhaps to open up a little bit more – a different approach than the one that was tried for over half a century that failed,” said Shifter.
As far as impact and historical importance, Shifter compares Obama’s trip to Cuba with the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty.
He said Obama will be closely watched and applauded far beyond Cuba.