COHA Staff Memorandum: Cuba Pledges to Release Political Prisoners


State Department Must Seize Golden Opportunity to Utilize Momentum to Change its Cuban Strategy, and not Duck Behind Shallow Platitudes

On Wednesday, July 7, Cuba vowed to release fifty-two political prisoners, five immediately and forty-seven in upcoming months. If successfully carried out, this would mean that about one-third of current political detainees on the island will have been released, leaving approximately one hundred still in custody. This is the first large-scale prisoner release by Havana since 1998, when upwards of 100 political prisoners were released following Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba. Spurred on by E.U. pressure, the current release was negotiated by the energized Archbishop of Havana Jaime Ortega, Spanish foreign minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, and Cuban president Raúl Castro. The Obama administration, which so far has failed to live up to its campaign rhetoric of broadening ties with Cuba, would be wise to seize this opportunity to warm up its outdated and unproductive Cuban strategy.

Despite promises to shift U.S. policy toward Cuba in the direction of greater flexibility, the Obama administration has so far only managed to reverse some of the more extremist policies implemented by President George W. Bush. While the current administration removed the limit on remittances to Cuba, as well as the cap on travel that prevented Cuban Americans from traveling to the island more than once every three years, its Cuban policies otherwise have been lame, listless, and bereft of imagination. While necessary, these have ultimately been only token steps that have failed to ignite much enthusiasm in Latin America because of their limited nature. Furthermore, despite Obama’s orders for the CIA to close Guantanamo Bay last year, the prison will now remain open for the next two years.

The just-announced prisoner release pledge provides fresh momentum and a ripe moment for the Obama administration to inaugurate progressive policies towards Cuba and open a renewed dialogue with Cuban leaders. Two fruitful steps would be for the administration to push through Congress the pending bill to repeal the travel ban on American visits to Cuba (Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, H.R. 4645), and to loosen the rules on food sales to Cuba. Both of these legislative initiatives appear to enjoy significant majorities in their favor. The U.S. should also respectfully ask Cuba to consider releasing Alan Gross, the American citizen working on a democracy-promotion program, who was detained in Cuba in December 2009 on grounds of alleged espionage. In addition, the US should choose this opportunity to immediately remove Cuba’s name from the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, a specious announcement made by the Obama administration in January 2010.

If the U.S. truly wants to work towards the normalization of relations with Cuba and obtain its goal of democratization of the island, it might consider using a prisoner exchange program similar to the one it is rumored to be considering with Russia. This program would supposedly allow for swapping of Russian and U.S. political detainees. A similar agreement with Havana might provide for the political leverage needed to foster an improved U.S.-Cuba relationship. The case of the Cuban Five, for example, would lend itself admirably to such a treatment because of the extreme importance attributed to it by the highest level of Cuban government.

Rather than the White House, it has been Spain that has taken the lead in working with Cuba in the direction of rational relations between Havana and the outside world. In spite of the relentless anti-Castro lobby in Miami, it is now the Obama administration’s responsibility to grasp this opportunity and take bold action that could liberalize ties between the two countries. Another moment may not come again soon.

For more information on recent US-Cuba relations, read this article and timeline: http://www.coha.org/cuba-u-s-rhetoric-timeline-hope-for-a-basic-shift-in-policy-disintegrates-into-continued-polarization/

For in-depth analysis of these issues, watch for upcoming articles by COHA Research Associates Bethan Rafferty on the Catholic Church and human rights in Cuba, and Abigail Griffith on the E.U.’s common position on Cuba.

13 thoughts on “COHA Staff Memorandum: Cuba Pledges to Release Political Prisoners

  • July 10, 2010 at 6:27 pm
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    Good article. This administration has been a disappointment to some of us that had high hopes for it, and Cuba policy is certainly near the head of the list. It seems ridiculous that the State Dept. doesn't prevent US citizens from visiting North Korea, but Cuba…well, that's another story.
    And the hypocrisy of accusing the Cuban government–which has never planned, much less carried out, a terrorist act against the people of the US– of sponsoring terrorism while the US holds the 5 Cuban men who demonstrated without any doubt that the US is a state sponsor of terrorism against the sovereign nation of Cuba….well, our government should be ashamed of itself.

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  • July 10, 2010 at 6:29 pm
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    Good article. This administration has been a disappointment to some of us that had high hopes for it, and Cuba policy is certainly near the head of the list. It seems ridiculous that the State Dept. doesn't prevent US citizens from visiting North Korea, but Cuba…well, that's another story. __And the hypocrisy of accusing the Cuban government–which has never planned, much less carried out, a terrorist act against the people of the US– of sponsoring terrorism while the US holds the 5 Cuban men who demonstrated without any doubt that the US is a state sponsor of terrorism against the sovereign nation of Cuba….well, our government should be ashamed of itself.

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  • July 12, 2010 at 10:57 am
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    Just back from summer vacations I came across your article:
    Thank you very much to the COHA staff for mentioning the release of the fifty-two “political prisoners” in Cuba in regard of the case of the Cuban Five!
    Additionally, I want to join Anne Jefferson' s comment.
    However, you didn’t seem to have had much time for the research when mentioning the release of up to 100 “political prisoner following Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba” in 1998, for instance. Otherwise you would have noticed that it had turned out then that among those had been just common criminals having carried out bomb attacks within Cuba whom Canadian authorities denied to admit having residence in their country.
    Rodríguez Sosa belonged to those 19 individuals having been on the list of Pope John Paul II who were flown out to Canada. Four of them were denied residence by Canadian authorities because of their felonies. (s.: http://www.miami5.de/informationen/wespennetz.htm… )
    And the others „only“ had been working subversively against the Cuban government, which is forbidden in any other country by law.
    Readers like me are still missing the respect of COHA for the Cuban constitution.
    William Blum said it in 1999 like this:
    The saddest part of this is that the world will never know what kind of society Cuba could have produced if left alone, if not constantly under the gun and the threat of invasion, if allowed to relax its control at home. The idealism, the vision, the talent, the internationalism were all there. But we'll never know. And that of course was the idea. http://www.blythe.org/nytransfer-subs/2001-Caribb

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    • July 13, 2010 at 7:45 am
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      Thank you for your comment. With regard to the release of prisoners following Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba, the 100+ prisoners mentioned in the article were the political prisoners — in total, over 300 prisoners were released following the visit.

      Sincerely,

      Sara Nawaz

      Reply
  • July 13, 2010 at 4:14 pm
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    Many Cuban oppositionists maintain that they supported the 1959 Revolution, but they felt it had been betrayed by Castro establishing a totalitarian regime- because the initial hopes (given Castro had not been known as a Communist prior) had been for both social reform and liberal democracy. The chance for both to happen peacefully was arguably missed in the 1940s, which was acknowledged as the only time pre-1959 that Cuba had any stability or freedom at all.

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  • July 13, 2010 at 5:51 pm
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    Well, one should take the interferences into consideration, which led into the circumstances after 1959: the terrorist attacks originally initiated by the CIA, the assassination attacks on Fidel Castro and last but not least the trade embargo, the US blockade, which drove Fidel Castro into the arms of the Soviet Union.
    However, scarcely anybody of those remaining to the predication that Cuba is suffering from a dictatorship, is aware of Cuban reality. I can only suggest, please, visit Cuba, please, read Arnold August having observed Cuban elections since the one in 1997 – 1998 until the last elections.
    Those oppositionists want to have a better more comfortable life, I think, but don't want to work hard for it themselves, instead they prefer taking money from organisations like USAID, DAI …
    Again I repeat:
    William Blum said it in 1999 like this:
    The saddest part of this is that the world will never know what kind of society Cuba could have produced if left alone, if not constantly under the gun and the threat of invasion, if allowed to relax its control at home. The idealism, the vision, the talent, the internationalism were all there. But we'll never know. And that of course was the idea. http://www.blythe.org/nytransfer-subs/2001-Caribb….

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  • July 14, 2010 at 3:01 am
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    A 1992 law actually decriminalised the forming of opposition parties in Cuba yet prohibits them from conducting activities, so their status is in limbo!

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  • July 14, 2010 at 9:03 pm
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    Those oppositionists have the chance to participate at respective assamblies in their neighbourhood for making their suggestions their and to run for office.
    If they are convincing they can be elected as the representative of their community.
    However, organizations like U.S.A.I.D. (having participated at the coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002, for instance) and D.A.I. (representative Alan Gros) want them to undermine the Cuban form of Democracy and provide them with money and equipment for overturning this system.
    What will happen to you, if you want to overturn your US government?

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    • July 15, 2010 at 4:03 am
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      Cuban form of democracy? Really?

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      • July 15, 2010 at 7:28 am
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        At least the Ostblok police states in Europe like East Germany allowed non-Marxist "bloc parties" to operate. Cuba doesn't even give you that luxury.

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        • July 17, 2010 at 12:13 pm
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          You seem to stick at the perception, that democracy can only be carried out by different parties sending their representatives into the parliament. Cuban people have decided to build another form of democracy a participative one. They are afraid of lobbyism, and they want to give each person who wants to participate at the policy of the country give a chance while such person don't need to have any money, but should be able to convince other persons. You really should read Arnold August, "Democracy in Cuba and the 1997-98 Elections, ISBN 9685084-05
          And to your former arguing about the good times befure 1959
          More than 30 % of the Cuban people were illeterates, the rural population was much poorer than now, while Havana was dominated by the mafia and a single bordello and
          gambling hall.
          Well, the rich profited some how of such "freedom", but most of them were afraid of the Batista regime causing 20,000 death and misse persons.

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          • July 18, 2010 at 3:58 am
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            Nobody is defending what happened in Cuba before 1959. There was no freedom in Cuba in the 1950s under Batista, which was why liberal democrats became revolutionaries.

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