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 confirmed.]• 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 regime.Jorge G. Castaneda is Mexico’s former foreign minister, Global Distinguished Professor at New York University and fellow at the New America Foundation.(C)2010 The New York Times

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