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    The Castros blink

    Posted on Friday, 07.30.10

    The Castros blink

    Finally, someone in Cuba went eyeball to eyeball with the Castro
    brothers, and they blinked.

    On July 7, Guillermo Fariñas, a dissident on a hunger strike for more
    than four months, achieved what no one has done before. Through a
    combination of careful confrontation, personal fortitude and
    international support, Fariñas forced Raúl Castro to negotiate with
    Cuba's Roman Catholic Church — which led to the immediate release of
    five political prisoners, with 47 more to follow over the next four months.

    Of course, this is not the first time that the Cuban regime has freed
    political prisoners. The many other instances were almost always in
    exchange for political and economic concessions.

    In 1978, Fidel Castro allowed more than 3,000 jailed dissidents to leave
    for the United States after a group of exiled Cubans from Miami visited
    Havana. Many in the Miami group subsequently advocated for ending the
    U.S. embargo against Cuba.

    In 1984, Castro freed 26 prisoners; in 1996, three; and in 1998, more
    than 80, after visits from, respectively, Jesse Jackson, Bill Richardson
    and Pope John Paul II, according to The Miami Herald's Andres Oppenheimer.

    Spain's Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos desperately tried to
    play a role in the Fariñas case. But this time, the circumstances were
    different. Fariñas was willing to die for his demands; he saw how they
    were, in a sense, reinforced by the death of another hunger striker,
    Orlando Zapata, last February.

    The Castros knew that Fariñas would die, too, if they didn't accept his
    demands, and that his death would make any improvement in relations with
    the European Union or President Obama even more difficult to acheive.

    The island's economic situation has gone from dire to worse in recent
    times. Raúl Castro recognized that, without a rapprochement, he couldn't
    achieve whatever changes he might hope to make — hence the dialogue
    with the church and the release of the prisoners.

    Despite Fariñas' courage and political skill, the significance of the
    agreement between Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Raúl Castro is modest.

    • First, circumstances may change during the four months that will pass
    before all the prisoners on the list are freed. Meanwhile, the remaining
    prisoners are still hostage to the Castros' dealings with the church and
    possibly the European Union.

    • Second, an additional 100 political prisoners in Cuba, and perhaps
    many more, are not included in the agreement. [The government has since
    indicated it may free all political prisoners, but that has not been

    • Third, articles 72 and 73 of the Cuban criminal code, which establish
    the notion of “dangerousness'' — an outrageously inexplicit word that
    has been denounced by Human Rights Watch — are still on the books.

    According to Cuban law, anybody can be jailed at any time, even before
    committing a crime, if they are perceived to have a penchant for doing
    so. And political opposition to the regime is a crime.

    • Finally, it is unclear whether the 52 dissidents will be freed in Cuba
    or deported to Spain and elsewhere. Fidel Castro has used expulsion from
    his homeland as a political instrument for more than half a century,
    with great success.

    Whether the church and Spain should lend themselves to this ploy is
    debatable. Even “voluntary'' exile is a non sequitur: Asking political
    prisoners in poor health to sign a statement that they will willingly
    accept exile is hardly magnanimous or ethical.

    Most important, however, is whether small gestures like the new
    agreement alter the human-rights situation in Cuba and represent the
    beginning of a transition in Cuban politics.

    Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, hit
    the mark when he said that he could not congratulate a government for
    freeing people who should never have been jailed.

    The real issue is whether there is any justification for the survival of
    a regime that acknowledges the existence of political prisoners, uses
    them as bargaining chips and needs to be forced by dead or dying hunger
    strikers to liberate any of them. Little can be done to change this
    situation until the Cuban people decide they have had enough. Meanwhile,
    voters should question their leaders' having any dealings with the Cuban

    Jorge G. Castaneda is Mexico's former foreign minister, Global
    Distinguished Professor at New York University and fellow at the New
    America Foundation.


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