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The Other Side of Cuba’s Prisoner Release

Havana’s announcement last week that it will release 52 political prisoners does not address the fate of its other such captives.

The announcement by Havana that it would release five political prisoners “who would travel to Spain with their families,” and another 47 during the next three or four months, has been credited to efforts by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos and Cuba’s archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

But neither Cardinal Ortega, nor Minister Moratinos would have had any possibility of “negotiating” the prisoners’ release, if it were not for the willingness of the Cuban opposition to continue its struggle despite harassment, beatings, imprisonment, and even death. And it remains to be seen what happens when prisoners to be released insist on staying on the island.

Foremost among the real heroes who pressured the regime to release prisoners was a 42-year-old Afro-Cuban bricklayer, Orlando Zapata Tamayo. As a political prisoner, Zapata shook the world with a hunger strike which, after the regime denied him water for several days, ended in his death. Free Cubans outside the island called on the world to denounce the crime in Havana. In turn, governments, human rights organizations and international leaders asked the Castros’ government to release political prisoners and prestigious foreign media reported on the situation. The coverage got to Raúl Castro, who blamed it, and the humanitarian appeals, on the CIA, saying that the international attention was a “media war against the revolution.”

Havana needed to do something. Its decision: release the remaining prisoners of the 75 that went to jail in 2003.

But the release does not free all political captives, which is estimated by some as more than 200 and by Freedom House as 167. The Cardinal, Moratinos and the Cuban government have yet to make any reference to their fate. Discussions have also yet to focus on eliminating from Cuba’s penal code such crimes as “dangerousness” (if the government thinks you are dangerous it sends you to jail), “enemy propaganda” (the possession of books on political transitions around the world or of such classics as George Orwell’s Animal Farm) or “economic crimes” such as the selling of poultry or vegetables by peasants outside the government structures.

In brief, Raúl Castro was angered by the opposition’s growth and steadfastness, and by the international attention they and Cuba’s human rights situation received.  His solution: release prisoners in a way that would make it possible for Moratinos to claim Spain’s business as usual approach with Cuba brings results. At the same time, the discussion with the Church allows the regime’s supporters abroad to counsel patience and to claim that significant changes have taken place.

As for U.S.-Cuban relations, Raúl’s move helps the regime because it provides some ammunition to those in the U.S. Congress trying to soften U.S. sanctions. An easing of the sanctions would help a Cuban government that is broke and hopes the lifting of the tourist ban would bring millions into its empty coffers.

Minister Moratinos made it clear that he intends to use the release of the prisoners to convince the European Union to end its “Common Position on Cuba,” which is predicated on holding talks with the government and the opposition, and the implementation of significant political reforms. Havana has decried the “Common Position,” labeling it an outside interference in its internal affairs.

So in an Orwellian turn of hand, the regime, with Madrid’s assistance, does not see the release of the prisoners—all prisoners of conscience who should not have been in prison for seven years in the first place—as the beginning of the serious reforms requested by world leaders such as President Barack Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel, former President Václav Havel, and former President Óscar Arias. Instead, this move is the opposite: the final act in the complete isolation of the Cuban opposition.

(Homepage photograph by Calidonia Hibernia.)

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Cuba, Fidel Castro, Political Prisoners, Cuba-U.S. relations