Cuba’s communist authorities will release 52 political prisoners, Catholic officials in Havana have disclosed, the largest release of imprisoned dissidents in decades.
As previewed in yesterday’s Democracy Digest, the release of the pro-democracy activists arrested in the 2003 Black Spring was brokered by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, with assistance from visiting Spanish diplomats.
The announcement, a rare victory for the island’s democracy advocates, is a result of agitation on the part of Cuba’s emerging civil society movement as much as diplomatic maneuvering.
“If this [the release] comes about, it will be thanks to the death of [dissident hunger striker Orlando] Zapata, to the Ladies in White, who have been so harassed by police, and thanks also to the strike by Guillermo Farinas,” said dissident Martha Beatriz Roque.
The move suggests that Cuba is “at the doors of a… significant change”, said Laura Pollan, leader of the Ladies in White and wife of jailed dissident Hector Maceda. She hoped it would be “the first steps of a true freedom, of a true democracy.”
But others are less optimistic.
“I am skeptical. Until our brothers are on the street, we don’t trust the authorities,” dissident Guillermo Fariñas told AFP. He has been on hunger strike since February to demand the release of 26 political prisoners.
While welcoming the announcement as “significant, and good news, from the point of view of the prisoners and their families,” Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights, stressed that it is part of a political calculation by a hard-pressed regime.
“For most of us, the most troubling thing about this event is that it doesn’t change at all the terrible condition of civil and human rights under which the immense majority of Cubans live,” said Sanchez. “These are cosmetic actions.”
Spain is using the release to demand that the European Union soften its Common Position and withdraw its mild ‘cocktail party sanctions’ on the regime.
Some of the activists will be released only on condition that they accept being forced into exile.
It would take “a very large plane to fit all those who obstruct the island’s authoritarians,” writes award-winning Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez. “Not even a jumbo jet could transport all those potentially at risk of going to prison for their ideas or their civil actions.”
She asks the obvious question: “Wouldn’t it be better if the ones they carried on this plane were ‘them’?”