Commentary: It's not a new era in Cuba

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Cuba's announcement that it will free 52 political prisoners over the next four months is a welcome development, but Spain's Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos' claim that this opens a "new phase in Cuba" is ludicrous.

After his meeting with Cuba's dictator Gen. Raul Castro and Roman Catholic Church Cardinal Jaime Ortega in Havana, an ecstatic Moratinos hailed the news of the imminent release of the first five imprisoned dissidents as a watershed in Cuba's recent history.

"This opens a new phase in Cuba," Moratinos told reporters. He added that "there is no longer any reason to maintain the (European Union's) Common Position" on Cuba, referring to the 1996 European agreement to link any improvement in ties with Cuba to progress on democracy and human rights on the island.

But most moderate Cuba-watchers list many reasons why Moratinos' claim was a wild exaggeration.

First, Cuba has a long history of using political prisoners as a bargaining chip, releasing a handful of prisoners in exchange for economic or diplomatic concessions, and later rounding up the next batch.

Rev. Jesse Jackson obtained the release of 26 political prisoners in 1984, Bill Richardson got three dissidents out of jail in 1996, Jimmy Carter's visit in 2002 led to the freedom of one prisoner, and Pope John Paul II visit to Cuba resulted in the release of 80 jailed dissidents.

Second, even if Cuba keeps its word and releases the 52 dissidents in an effort to get the European investments it desperately needs, that would only be less than a third of the island's political prisoners.

According to the Havana-based nonauthorized Cuban Commission for Human Rights, there are 167 prisoners of conscience on the island. But international human rights groups believe there are many more, because Cuba does not allow United Nations inspectors to visit Cuban prisons to see who is behind bars, and for what reasons.

Third, we still don't know whether this will be a prisoners' release, or a forced deportation. In the past, Cuba has tended to release political prisoners who agree to go into exile. A Roman Catholic Church statement announcing the prisoners' release last week said they "will be able" to leave the country, but did not specify what will happen with those who want to stay.

Fourth, and most important, the Cuban regime is not even talking about modifying articles 72 and 73 of its criminal code, an Orwellian legislation that allows it to put people behind bars before they committed a crime on the mere suspicion that they may commit one in the future.

Nor is the regime ready to consider changing its law 88, which allows it to imprison people for writing anything that can be interpreted as critical of the government, or its various laws banning freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to travel within the country or abroad, independent unions, and political parties.

When I asked José Miguel Vivanco, head of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group's Americas department, whether Cuba's latest announcement amounts to a "new phase" in Cuba, he said: "We are obviously very happy for the prisoners and their families, but I am not going to congratulate a government for imprisoning people that shouldn't have been imprisoned in the first place."

Vivanco, a critic of the Cuban regime who at the same time opposes the U.S. embargo on the island, added that "If Cuba's norms don't change, nothing will change."

My opinion: I agree. Instead of following Moratinos' recommendation, the European Union should be a little imaginative, and tell Cuba: "We applaud your move, and we are ready to lift our Common Position, but you must take a few minimal steps to show that you are ready to start abiding by United Nations-sanctioned fundamental rights."

"Don't panic, we are not talking about the big things, such as free elections, or a multiparty system, like the U.S. laws demand," the Europeans could say. "We are just asking for small things, such as allowing all Cubans uncensored access to the Internet, freedom to meet with whomever they want, or allowing dissidents to write and publish on the island."

Of course, the Cuban regime will not go along because it knows that it would not survive if Cuba ceases to be a police state.

But it would put Cuba's dictatorship on the spot, and help put the latest headlines about the prisoners' release in proper perspective.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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