US President Barack Obama talks with Cuba's President Raul Castro from the White House in Washington, DC on December 16, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

(New York) – President Barack Obama’s historic decision to overhaul US policy toward Cuba is a crucial step toward removing a major obstacle to progress on human rights on the island, Human Rights Watch said today.

Obama announced that the US would normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba and ease restrictions on travel and commerce with the island. The president called on Congress to consider lifting the economic embargo that has been in place for more than 50 years. 

“It’s been clear for years that US efforts to promote change in Cuba through bans on trade and travel have been a costly and misguided failure,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than isolating Cuba, the embargo has isolated the United States, alienating governments that might otherwise speak out about the human rights situation on the island.”

The UN General Assembly has repeatedly called for an end to the US embargo. In October 2014, 188 of the 192 member countries voted for a resolution condemning the policy.

Despite some positive reforms in recent years, the Cuban government continues to engage in systematic abuses aimed at punishing critics and discouraging dissent.

In 2010 and 2011, Cuba’s government released dozens of political prisoners on condition that they accept exile in exchange for freedom. Since then, the Cuban government has relied less on long-term prison sentences to punish dissent and has relaxed draconian travel restrictions that divided families and prevented its critics from leaving and returning to the island.

Nevertheless, the Cuban government continues to repress individuals and groups who criticize the government or call for basic human rights. Arbitrary arrests and short-term detention have increased dramatically in recent years and routinely prevent human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others from gathering or moving about freely. Detention is often used pre-emptively to prevent people from participating in peaceful marches or meetings to discuss politics. Detainees are often beaten, threatened, and held incommunicado for hours or days.

The government controls all media outlets in Cuba and tightly restricts access to outside information, severely limiting the right to freedom of expression. Only a very small fraction of Cubans are able to read independent websites and blogs because of limited access to – and the high cost of – the Internet.

“The embargo has imposed indiscriminate hardship on Cubans, but done nothing to end abuses,” Vivanco said. “The Obama administration should make human rights a focus of its Cuba policy but look for more effective ways – including working with other democracies in the region – to press the Cuban government to respect fundamental rights.”