In my NYR blog post earlier this week, and in a recent New York Review article I wrote with Nik Steinberg, I observed that the Cuban government under Raúl Castro has continued to harass and jail political dissenters—even as the blogosphere provides new ways for some Cubans to express their criticism. Now, the government has announced it will release fifty-two political prisoners who have been locked up since 2003—a decision made after the archbishop of Havana and the Spanish foreign minister interceded directly with Raúl Castro. The announcement is certainly good news for the prisoners and their families, who have been through a very difficult seven-year ordeal. One might hope it also signals a new willingness by the Castro government to tolerate dissent—or at least to stop locking up dissenters—which would be very good news for the entire country.
But we’ve seen such negotiated releases before. Jesse Jackson convinced Fidel Castro to release twenty-six political prisoners in 1984, Bill Richardson secured the release of three in 1996, and Jimmy Carter got one prisoner released in 2002. My colleagues at Human Rights Watch managed to get half a dozen released after six grueling hours of negotiation with Fidel Castro in 1995. The most successful was Pope John Paul II, who obtained the release of more than eighty jailed dissidents in 1998.
Those prisoner releases were also welcome news at the time each occurred. But they did not bring an end to repression in Cuba. The government never stopped locking up its critics and stifling dissent on the island. There is little reason to think this time will be different. Since Raúl Castro took over from his ailing brother in 2006, Cuba has jailed scores of people critical of the government, including journalists, human rights defenders, and ordinary citizens engaged in “counterrevolutionary” activities. None of these newer prisoners are among the fifty-two the government now plans to release.
In any case, for now, only five of the fifty-two will actually leave prison—and apparently not for their homes, but rather for forced exile to Spain. “They will go directly from the prisons to the planes,” Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote on Wednesday, citing “a gentleman who keeps his ear glued to the radio” listening to “the prohibited broadcasts from the North.”
The ability to rid themselves of the inconvenient, the skill to push off the island platform anyone who opposes them, this is a talent in which our leaders are quite adept…. [S]o many Cubans find themselves caught between the walls of prison and the sword of exile.”
Real change is unlikely to come to Cuba without pressure from the international community. But as Nik Steinberg and I argued, the kind of pressure that’s needed will be difficult to muster as long as the US embargo is in place. The embargo has caused considerable hardship to the Cuban people and alienated governments that otherwise might be willing to criticize Cuba’s repressive practices.
Until Washington and its allies find a better approach (Steinberg and I offer one option in our article), the periodic release of political prisoners will mean nothing more than shorter sentences for people who should never have been jailed in the first place. Nothing will prevent the Castro government from re-stocking the newly emptied prison cells with other Cubans who dare to question its hold on power.