Cuba’s government has been releasing political prisoners since last summer but has never itself set dates for completion of the process. The Catholic Church, part of the process, announced last July that they would be completed in three or four months, which meant November.
Now Cardinal Ortega is saying that the releases will occur in the “coming months” and notes: “A clear and formal promise from the Cuban government exists that all those prisoners will be freed.” Reuters report here.
According to the Reuters count, 52 prisoners from the 2003 crackdown remained in jail at the beginning of this process. Of these, 41 have been released, of whom all but one traveled to Spain with family members. That person is Arnaldo Ramos Lauzurique, 68, who was freed November 14 and remains in Cuba. Of the remaining 11, El Pais reported last November, two apparently want to emigrate directly to the United States and the remaining nine, like Lauzurique, assert their right to remain in their own country. Also, 16 prisoners not on that list have been released and have traveled to Spain.
All in all, it’s positive that the prisoners’ punishments are reduced and that they are out of jail and with their families. But there is a sour note: the Cuban government clearly leaned on the prisoners to accept the offer to depart for Spain, and gained leverage by making the offer to many family members who surely pressed the prisoners to accept it. So the departures appear voluntary, but with a push from the government.
Nonetheless, the prisoners in Spain have pointed out that they had a choice; some have said that they admire those who turned the offer down. The release of Lauzurique reinforces the idea that the choice was real.
If the Cuban government completes the releases, one doubts that that act will be presented or interpreted as an endorsement of the prisoners’ inherent right to engage in political activism in their own country. But it will certainly knock down the idea that those in Spain were forced to go. It would be good for Cuba to take the additional step of allowing those in Spain to return to Cuba at will.
In political terms, completion of the process would have several impacts.
Cuba’s population of prisoners of conscience would be reduced to very few, or to zero.
The Damas de Blanco will be changed, as many of their members are outside Cuba and their cause for weekly protests will have been addressed.
There is no sign that either Europe or the United States will react to that development. That is remarkable even taking into account the questions one can raise about the prisoner releases, or the fact that they do not end Cuba’s human rights problems. If there is no reaction, the message to the Cuban government would be to act for its own reasons and not to expect reciprocal gestures, even when Cuban actions address an issue that Washington and Europe have pressed, with vehemence, for decades.