Until Tuesday, we were in a holding pattern. Then Havana finally began the transfer of six men out of 53 still imprisoned during the Black Spring of 2003 to jails closer to their homes.
On May 19, Raul Castro met with Jaime Ortega -- cardinal and archbishop of Havana -- and Dionisio Garcia -- archbishop of Santiago de Cuba and president of the Cuban Conference of Bishops. He agreed to move the prisoners to make family visits easier and to take 26 ailing prisoners to civilian hospitals for proper care.
For their freedom, Orlando Zapata gave his life and Guillermo Farinas launched a hunger strike. There's no sign yet that these prisoners are being readied for the transfer, but they will be. Now receiving nutrients intravenously, Fariñas has been adamant about continuing the strike until the 26 men are hospitalized and on their way to freedom.
Still, he recently told Spain's El Pais: "If they free the 10 or 12 sickest prisoners, I would abandon my protest so that the government can negotiate with the church the release of the rest on another timetable and without pressure."
Cuban leaders are stepping on uncharted ground. After an unprecedented international clamor over Orlando Zapata's death and their initial intransigence, they answered Ortega's call to dialogue. Castro recognized the Catholic church as an interlocutor to address humanitarian issues with an eye on relieving the backlash.
Twice before the authorities negotiated the release of political prisoners. In the early 1960s, the U.S. government and Cuban exiles sought freedom for the Bay of Pig invaders. Fidel Castro freed them in exchange for $53 million in food and prescription drugs. After meeting with diaspora Cubans in 1978, Havana liberated 3,600 political prisoners. The U.S. and Cuban governments had previously agreed on the prisoner release; the format was determined by Cuba.
But this time is different: The United States is not involved. Castro and the bishops are Cubans talking about Cuban problems. While too soon to claim a turning point, something new is afoot on the island. At the very least, families will be able to visit their loved ones regularly, prisoners in ill health will receive care and some will be released.
Havana is not about to eliminate the crime of "dangerousness," a state of mind that may result in a citizen's arrest for threatening national security, let alone respect the civil liberties of ordinary Cubans and call free elections. What could or should happen is a new template that allows the authorities to deal with the world without constant reproach on human rights.
The old modus operandi isn't working anymore. At the United Nations, the new Human Rights Council requires all member states to be reviewed. Gone are the days when Havana could mount a campaign against the United States for unfairly singling it out. True, the HRC leaves a lot to be desired, but that's another matter altogether. The European Union has generally preferred engagement over confrontation. Under the current Spanish E.U. presidency, the Socialist government wanted to have the Common Position lifted that conditions normal relations to Havana's progress on human rights. Zapata's death, however, unleashed the E.U.'s fury.
Recent developments on the island may renew Madrid's push regarding the Common Position before its presidency ends on June 30. Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos suggested as much on June 1. The Cuban Catholic Church and the Spanish government have excellent relations. The church's dialogue with the authorities is bearing fruits that may sway E.U. skeptics.
Lifting the Common Position would allow the Cuban government to claim a major victory. So be it, but the next step -- an economic cooperation pact with the E.U. -- carries a standard, if non-binding, clause on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Vietnam, for example, signed such an agreement.
Cuba could as well if the authorities continue on the path of dialogue. Denouncing the United States and the European Union for meddling in Cuban domestic affairs was never going to defuse the international uproar. Dealing with the Catholic Church on issues related to political prisoners might.
The leopard isn't changing its spots, but neither is it growling as usual.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Marifeli Perez-Stable is a professor at Florida International University and senior nonresident fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.