The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putting Cuban human rights violations in some context

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While the reception to President Obama’s announcement that the United States would move to normalize relations with Cuba has overall been quite positive, some lawmakers, pundits, and The Washington Post’s editorial page have questioned the wisdom of opening up relations with a regime that tramples its citizens’ most basic human rights. It is of course true that the Cuban regime engages in human rights violations. Yet, as Dan Drezner points out, that’s true too for many other states that the United States has diplomatic and trade relations with.

So how bad are Cuba’s human rights violations in comparison with that of other countries? It is notoriously difficult to measure just how badly a government abuses the rights of its citizens in any given year. Yet, there are academics and NGOs who try, each using slightly different concepts, information, and metrics. In a recent article (ungated) in the American Political Science Review, Penn State political scientist Christopher J. Fariss develops a smart measurement model that captures the common component among different measures of physical integrity rights. Moreover, this model generates measures that are comparable over time.

The graph above uses this data. Cuba is clearly in the bottom half of the distribution but its record has improved somewhat over the past two decades. The graph also highlights two Communist countries with whom the United States has had troublesome relations. Critics of the policy change highlight North Korea, which has a much worse record than Cuba, which has gotten even more atrocious in recent years. Vietnam, emphasized by President Obama in his speech, is a better comparison. Indeed, the two countries have a nearly identical human rights record according to this measure (it may be different if we would focus on other rights than physical integrity rights, which include torture, political imprisonment, government killing and other forms of repression).

While the Post editorial is correct that Vietnam’s record has not improved since the United States has established economic relations with it, I am not sure this is the best way to think about the issue.  By the Fariss measure, Cuba ranks 62nd out of 197 on the list of the worst human rights abusers in 2010 (the last year for which data is available). There may be little reason to believe that opening relations will dramatically improve this record but there is even less reason to think that seeking to isolate one third of the world’s countries for the way they treat their citizens is a sensible foreign policy.