Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cuba Will Free 52 Political Prisoners [Updated]

The news yesterday came as a big surprise to almost everyone including Guillermo Fariñas, the hunger striker who in February initially demanded the release of 26 political prisoners reportedly ill. Now, according to Radio Marti, Fariñas will stop his hunger strike once "10 to 12 prisoners" are reported free. But, once Cuban dissident Laura Pollan (photo) heard the news of this possible mass liberation (which includes her husband), she called Fariñas and told him: "Trust a little bit... Stop the hunger strike. You are more valuable alive than dead."

Just like those moments of joy when an expert negotiator successfully gains the release of hostages, yesterday may soon be celebrated as a big political victory for Spain's minister of foreign affairs Miguel Angel Moratinos and Cuba's catholic leader Jaime Ortega for their negotiated release of Amnesty International's Cuban "prisoners of conscience." But, just like a hostage situation, more difficult problems lie in the background that prisoner exchanges cannot solve. The militant or hard-liner would say that the problem is simply solved through force or coercion, while others may propose less rigid alternatives. Spain's Miguel Angel Moratinos has chosen dialogue, and has scored big. Here in Miami we should expect a devastating blow to militancy.

So what does Cuba gain from releasing 52 political prisoners who have been unfairly incarcerated since 2003?

Well, we cannot say for certain what details were discussed between Moratinos, Ortega and Raul Castro that led to this possible mass liberation, but there are some hints. The most obvious being the potential end of the European Union's "common position" towards Cuba which Moratinos has vowed to permanently lift. Yesterday, Moratinos made it clear that the "common position" is no longer justified, mainly because before traveling to Cuba Moratinos made a deal with other EU members: "They told me that if the problem of [Cuban political] prisoners was solved the Common Position would be lifted." The EU will be reviewing the "common position" in September after Moratinos delayed the vote from June expecting promising results from the ongoing negotiations. Lifting or revising the "common position" will allow Cuba to extend economic cooperation with EU nations at a time when it desperately needs it.

Thus, focus on the economy is the other possible reason Raul Castro has negotiated this prisoner release. As Cuba expert Jorge I. Dominguez explained last month at a conference that discussed the Cuban economy, finding a solution (albeit short-term) to international condemnation of Cuba's human rights violations was important to achieve a greater goal: "President Raul Castro's desire to focus on problems--such as the economy with its declining growth rate--that are central to his office and remove others that distract from this."

And finally, this is another ideological victory for supporters of increasing dialogue with the Cuban government, especially once all 52 political prisoners are finally freed.[Reports indicate that prisoners are not being forced into exile as a condition for their release, but are free to choose emigration to Spain.] History has shown that the Cuban government has repeatedly sought out favorable partners to negotiate with and address certain problems, such as political prisoners. Mass liberation of Cuban prisoners occurred in the 70s and 90s with different types of negotiating partners, and the potential exists today. But, negotiating the release of prisoners ignores the central problem: historically fraught U.S.-Cuba relations.

The U.S. must eventually accept other political alternatives to using force or coercion against the Cuban government. Negotiation and dialogue are alternatives that may yield good results. So why wait any longer?

[Press Release by the Cuban Catholic Church on the release of political prisoners.]

[Recent list of Amnesty International's Cuban "Prisoners of Conscience," the list includes Ariel Sigler and Darsi Ferrer who were recently freed from prison. Rolando Jimenez Posada is the only prisoner not scheduled to be released.]

[Update: Guillermo Fariñas has ended his hunger strike Thursday, July 8, according to Yoani Sanchez, and other reports from Cuba's dissidents.]

[Photo by Reuters]

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