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21st Century Slaves: Cuba and Obama's Hope

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"THE Revolution has abandoned its principles, if it ever had them, of building a more just society, and has condemned Cubans to a fierce fight for their lives at the most primitive level -- obtaining food." --Vicente Botín, Los funerales de Castro (Castro's Funeral).

President Obama recently removed restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba by Cuban-Americans. U.S.- Cuba discussions have begun on other issues such as immigration. Congressional initiatives to relax further or to eliminate the U.S. embargo entirely have been announced for Fall 2009, including expanding the right to travel to Cuba by all U.S. citizens.

The business sector has long advocated an end to the embargo, and there is considerable interest on the part of U.S. investors to begin operations on the island, as well as offshore.

However, here's the rub: the current Cuban labor system is in violation of internationally recognized human and labor rights. The Cuban government believes that because of increasing domestic and international pressures, the U.S. will be forced to lift the embargo unilaterally, without concessions of any kind by Cuba.

At the very least, then, investors from the U.S. and other countries will need to consider precedents such as the Unocal and Curaçao Drydock ruling under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) of 1789, whereby federal "district courts have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a Treaty of the United States."

Courts hearing cases brought under ATCA have interpreted the statute to grant U.S. courts jurisdiction over tortuous acts that occur anywhere in the world, provided that those acts violate international law. The ATCA is also called the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law that,

"...allowed non-U.S. citizens to seek redress in American courts for torts considered violations of the law of nations: piracy, attacks on ambassadors and the right of safe passage."

In October 2008, a court entered the first corporate ATCA judgment -- $80 million to three Cuban workers trafficked to work in the nation of Curaçao for a Dutch dry dock company.

According to the law firm, Grossman Roth, P.A., the landmark case was "the first time a U.S. Court has held a company doing business with Cuba liable for forced labor and human rights abuses committed in concert with the Cuban state."

Alberto Rodriguez-Licea, one of the plaintiffs who spoke on behalf of the three, said,

"We hope that today's historic judgment means that no Cuban worker will ever have to suffer the same humiliation and inhumane treatment that we experienced. We are overwhelmed by the generosity of so many people who have worked very hard to help bring our oppressors to justice."

In Cuba, not only is the labor market a disaster (see the trailer above for the new independent film "Under Cuban Skies"), the whole economy is currently in the throes of a severe crisis. The national GDP, overly reliant upon nickel, remittances, tourism and Venezuelan foreign aid, has been battered by the worldwide financial recession. In addition, two devastating hurricanes in 2008 wreaked widespread damage upon the island nation.

However, in the midst of this crisis, if the Cuban government wishes to take advantage of opportunities offered through the lifting of the embargo, it will be forced to undertake profound reforms, at least encompassing its labor practices.

At virtually the same time, changes in leadership in Cuba in 2008 and in the United States in 2009, foretell a "new beginning" in U.S-Cuba relations which could eventually lead to greater respect for human and labor rights as well as to sustainable economic development in Cuba. In addition, each year of late, Americans report diminishing domestic support for the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

Two years ago this week, the "new leader" of Cuba, Raúl Castro, urged Cuban citizens to debate openly their nation's problems. Hopeful Cubans took him up on his offer. A growing number of journalists, labor leaders, as well as founders of independent libraries, pressed their demands for freedom and an end to the government's suffocating monopoly over virtually every aspect of life.

The government ordered a token relaxation of its restrictions by granting Cubans the right to purchase electric items such as microwaves, cell phones, and computers, and for the first time the right to patronize modern hotels. Until now, all of the above were inaccessible to ordinary Cubans and reserved only for tourists.

The relaxation of limitations on computer and cell phone use has resulted, predictably, in a rise in the number of dissident Cuban bloggers. The world renowned Yoani Sánchez, who blogs as Generación Y, has led the clarion call for labor reform and liberty in Cuba:

"I arrived at this medicine that would 'cure a horse' after verifying that the Internet was the only opening through which an alternative, critical and inconvenient opinion could 'jump the fence' of censorship in Cuba. The examples around me of those thrown out, isolated, and incarcerated warned me that differences of opinion continue to be penalized. But the inquisitors grow older and their methods do not develop at the same speed as technology. So, there was the Internet, still without laws to prevent the posting of opinions, like an unregulated zone, a crack that opened up in the wall."

Cuban dissidents have been calling attention to the problem since the mid-1990s, but even now it seems to have gotten very little attention in the business community or in the U.S. Congress.

On a trip to Cuba I took a few weeks ago, I witnessed the well-known Cuban dissidents "Las Damas de Blanco" (The Ladies in White) marching down Fifth Avenue in Havana after Sunday Mass. In what has traditionally been a silent protest of the unjust incarceration of their loved ones and the lack of fundamental freedoms in Cuba turned vocal.

"Libertad! Libertad! Libertad!" shouted the ladies in unison as they stood abreast of one another with raised flowers and impassioned voices.

Other potential witnesses in any labor dispute are the Cuban doctors who have defected from Cuba during their internationalist missions in Venezuela and in other countries.

Awareness must be raised in the international community as to how the expectations of thoughtful, courageous and "independent" Cubans can help the U.S. and other countries arrive at a new, respectful relationship with Cuba - a relationship based on greater freedom for the Cuban people and on a realistic agenda for meaningful and sustainable development.

Today, the interests of international business, the U.S. government, and the Cuban populace coalesce around a single ideal: labor reform in Cuba.

The Obama administration and the United Nations have a fleeting opportunity to embrace and encourage greater awareness of human and labor rights in Cuba and pave the way for meaningful change on the island only ninety miles from our shores. They must seize that opportunity now.

Luis Carlos Montalván is a member of the Council for Emerging National Security Affairs (CENSA) and consulted on the forthcoming documentary film, "Under Cuban Skies - Workers and their Rights."