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live up to its campaign rhetoric of broadening ties with Cuba, would be wise to seize this opportunity to warm up its outdated and unproductive Cuban strategy.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.