Visiting Cuba fuels regime’s repression

People in two red classic convertibles raising arms to take pictures in front of cruise ship (© Ramon Espinosa/AP Images)
Tourists in classic automobiles take pictures in Havana in 2018. Supporting Cuba's state-run businesses also fuels its repressive regime. (© Ramon Espinosa/AP Images)

Visiting Cuba, even purchasing Cuban rum and cigars, funds a regime that represses its people and exports human rights abuses.

Travelers staying at a Havana hotel or smoking Cuban cigars back at home are providing revenue to a regime that severely restricts press freedom, jails protesters and teaches Nicolás Maduro’s illegitimate regime in Venezuela how to torture.

“The Castro economy relies on the theft of private property and the repression of the people,” Michael Kozak, U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said in a July 27 tweet. “Regime-made Cuban rum and cigars are luxuries that are not worth the human cost.”

The Brookings Institution estimates in a 2016 report (PDF, 1.4 MB) that 69% of Cuba’s tourism revenue goes to state-run companies. The Cuban regime owns all of the island’s major tourist hotels. The only tourist properties not owned by the Cuban government are small homestays.

Even Cuba’s Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces is heavily invested in the nation’s tourist industry through a holding company called Grupo de Administración Empresarial SA (GAESA). According to the Brookings Institution report, one GAESA subsidiary, Gaviota, controls 40% of tourist hotel rooms. Gaviota also runs tour agencies, shops and restaurants in Old Havana.

Cuban cigar sales reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to Reuters. Of course, the Cuban regime also controls the country’s cigar industry.

The Cuban government’s stranglehold on the nation’s economy dates back to the 1959 revolution. Fidel Castro’s regime took over the tobacco industry the following year, seizing cigar factories, cigarette plants and tobacco warehouses. They also seized production of the rum industry, including Cuba’s most popular brands, prompting former owners to leave the country, a pattern repeated across the economy.

Years later, revenue from Cuba’s state-owned businesses fuels a repressive regime. Human Rights Watch, in a 2020 report, says the regime continues to harass critics, citing 1,800 arbitrary arrests between January and August 2019. Cuba is currently detaining 109 political prisoners, the report says.

In the same 2020 report, Human Rights Watch states that police routinely harass, rough up and detain members of the Ladies in White, some of whom are relatives of the regime’s political prisoners. Earlier this year, the U.N. called for the immediate release of one member of the group, a political prisoner herself, whose family alleges she has been abused in prison.

Meanwhile, Cuba’s military sends tens of thousands of advisers to aid Maduro’s brutal regime in Venezuela. Cuban advisers help Maduro shape his repressive policies, serve as his protective detail, and train his police and intelligence officers on torture methods.

Cuba’s influence contributes to brutal torture methods used on prisoners in Venezuela, according to a December 2019 report by the CASLA Institute.

“With the guidance and encouragement of Russia and Cuba, Maduro’s regime arrests, tortures and even kills our citizens,” said interim Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó in a commentary published in the Miami Herald. “We demand that the regimes of Russia and Cuba stop torture and abuse, and leave our country forever.”