Cuba politics: Freedom calls


Cuba’s announced agreement to free 52 political prisoners—the largest such release since 1998—could mark a turning point in ties with the EU. Relations between Havana and the EU deteriorated badly in 2003, after the government rounded up 75 dissidents and slapped them with lengthy prison terms. The EU has since taken a “common position” that a renewal of official co-operation would depend on political concessions, including improved treatment of dissidents. The latest developments could be a big step in that direction. However, they are probably not sufficient to lead to a major change in the US’s much more restrictive policies towards the communist regime.

The Catholic Church’s hierarchy in Cuba has been involved in negotiations on behalf of members of the illegal opposition for several months. The talks were sparked in part by the death of a prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, from a hunger strike last February. This generated widespread international condemnation, even from countries in Europe and Latin America that are friendly to Havana. (Another hunger striker, Guillermo Farinas, is currently hospitalised in critical condition.)

A visit to Cuba by the Vatican foreign minister, Cardinal Dominique Mamberti, in mid-June yielded the first signs of progress on the issue. In response to specific requests, on June 13th it was announced that Ariel Sigler Amaya, a paraplegic dissident, would be released. Twelve other prisoners subsequently were moved closer to their families.

A bigger development was the announcement by the Catholic Church on July 7th that a total of 52 political prisoners would be freed. Five are to be released immediately and will travel to Spain with their families, according to a Church statement. The remaining 47 will be set free gradually over a period of three to four months. Spain’s foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, met with President Raúl Castro on July 7th and appears to have played a major role in cementing the deal.

No democratisation

If the prisoners — who include journalists, community organisers and opposition figures — are indeed set free, this would be a major concession on the part of the Castro government. It appears to be designed for external consumption, however. It could lead to improvements in Cuba’s foreign relations, particularly with Spain and other EU nations. EU foreign ministers will take up the issue of whether to uphold their “common position” on Cuba at their next summit in September. That position requires that the EU conduct an annual assessment of the human-rights situation in Cuba. Spain has been lobbying for some time for that requirement to be dropped.

However, the prisoner releases probably do not signal coming democratisation or any moves to provide Cubans with greater political rights. Moreover, there has been no fundamental shift in the tolerance of opposition. While discussions with Church representatives were under way in early June, the authorities rounded up and briefly detained 37 members of two dissident groups, Agenda para la Transición (Agenda for the Transition) and Unidad Liberal de la República de Cuba (the Cuban Republic’s Liberal Unity). Ostensibly this was to prevent two meetings due to take place in the house of a prominent dissident, Héctor Palacios, although the meetings proceeded any way.

Further, the Cuban Commission on Human Rights claims there are more than 100 additional political prisoners in Cuban jails.

US might not be swayed

The July 7th announcement could well result in a thaw in relations with the EU, even if a full co-operation agreement does not emerge in the short term. Cuba’s relations with the US, however, will probably remain largely unaffected for now. The US insists that a shift in its stance is conditional on bigger changes in the Cuban political regime and determined steps towards democratisation. Although Washington sees the freeing of prisoners as a positive step, this will not be enough to warrant a fundamental change in policy.

Furthermore, much of the Cuban-American community, which has political clout out of proportion to its size in the US population, has downplayed the importance of the prisoner release and remains largely hostile to any liberalisation of US policy. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuba-born congresswoman from Florida, has warned against being “fooled” by the Castro government.

The administration of President Barack Obama has taken modest steps towards improving relations with Cuba, such as eliminating Bush-era restrictions on travel to the island by Cuban-Americans and on their remittance of funds to their relatives. However, aware that the Cuba problem cannot be solved easily or quickly, the Obama government has decided to make no additional moves on Cuba policy in the approach to the US mid-term elections in November. Nonetheless, a campaign in the US legislature to weaken economic sanctions has continued. Two bills are advancing through Congress, one to facilitate US food sales to Cuba (by eliminating the need for Cuba to pay in cash in advance) and the other to remove restrictions on travel for US citizens. Although improvement on the human-rights front would help these bills’ prospects, final passage is highly uncertain.

An end to the 50-year-old embargo and a full normalisation of diplomatic relations with Cuba are not in prospect within the next several years. Low-profile co-operation in areas of mutual interest (such as migration, hurricane monitoring and aid to Haiti) probably will expand further, however.

Friendly faces

In the absence of normalisation of political and commercial ties with Washington, Cuba’s relations with Venezuela will remain an important source of support for the economy. These are based on favourable terms of trade that link Cuba’s oil imports to the supply of healthcare and education professionals to Venezuela. If Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, were to be forced out of office, there would be a risk that current arrangements might be scaled back.

Partly reflecting this uncertainty, the Cuban authorities will continue to broaden international economic ties with other friendly countries, notably China, Brazil and Russia, which are becoming ever-more important trade partners. Restoring good relations with the EU would also help to mitigate the growing reliance on, and risks associated with, Havana’s links to Venezuela.