Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Are the brothers Castro at it again?

Are the brothers Castro at it again?

Raul Castro's insistence that the 52 political prisoners leave Cuba
means he wants to get rid of the independent journalists and the Ladies
in White

Alvaro Vargas Llosa

You have to hand it to Fidel and Raul Castro. They are masterful
tacticians. Whenever they've needed to diffuse pressure, they set
tongues wagging with speculation about reform. By the time the ruse is
exposed, another period of stability has set in. The recent announcement
that 52 political prisoners will go free has spawned a whirlwind of
conjecture. Are the brothers at it again?

The slow-motion release that began last week and will go on for months
will liberate one-third of Cuba's political prisoners, according to the
Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights. These men emerged some
years ago as a group of independent journalists. Together with an
organization of librarians and some bloggers, they later began an effort
to bring to life a Cuban civil society. Not since the emergence of
illegal human-rights organizations and political parties had anything
more encouraging happened. No wonder the Castros incarcerated 75 of
them. What they didn't anticipate was that the wives and sisters of the
prisoners would jump to fame. With a campaign that got louder and bolder
with every pogrom that busted their marches, the incredible Ladies in
White gained for these heroes the attention of the world.

One day, out of the blue, a prisoner deployed the ultimate weapon – the
hunger strike. The death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo in February changed
the game. The decision by Guillermo Farinas to replace Mr. Zapata, and
the announcement by others that they would follow suit if the second
striker died, took the struggle to a level not seen since the
anti-Castro guerrillas of the 1960s. Left-wing celebrities – a
bellwether of Cuban affairs – expressed their disgust for the Castros,
friendly democratic presidents shunned them (except for Brazil's Luiz
Inacio Lula da Silva, who infamously called the prisoners criminals) and
Spain's socialist government confirmed that there was no hope that the
European Union would lift the diplomatic sanctions. The economy, despite
Venezuela's subsidies, was stagnant, and Fidel Castro made sure, with
intimidating columns from his sickbed, that the timid reforms his
brother Raul had signalled he wanted were a non-starter.

Then, in May, Raul Castro began negotiations with the Catholic Church
led by Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel
Moratinos joined later. The result was the announcement that the 52
remaining prisoners from the 2003 crackdown known as Black Spring would
be released, and that Spain would take them and their families.

Other releases have lifted people's hopes in the past. In 1969-70, about
1,300 prisoners were deported. In 1979, after a controversial
negotiation with some exiles, 3,600 opponents were set free – and
expelled. In 1998, Pope John Paul II's visit was followed by the release
of 40 men – and another mass deportation. Few regimes have played more
deftly the sinister game of confining and torturing innocent persons in
rat-infested jails only to win praise for using them as bargaining chips
in subsequent negotiations.

A couple of things make the latest release potentially more meaningful,
as some critics, including the Miami-based Cuban American National
Foundation, have said. The fact that the decision was made by Raul
Castro, an admirer of the "Chinese way" pioneered by Deng Xiaoping, may
signify something. The participation of the church, which has gained
more recognition these past few days than in the previous half a
century, is intriguing. And Cardinal Ortega's discreet trip to
Washington to brief American officials suggests that Raul Castro is
interested in some kind of arrangement with the United States. The
cardinal, in fact, stressed in his meetings that Raul Castro is serious
about reform.

None of which guarantees anything. The safest bet is to assume that the
Castros are – for the umpteenth time – taking one step back before
taking two steps forward. Raul Castro's insistence that the prisoners
leave the island with their families means he wants to get rid of the
independent journalists and the Ladies in White – and abort the
embryonic civil society they had painstakingly engendered. But it is not
inconceivable, given Raul Castro's bind, that the regime will try some
reform in order to beef up the economy and ensure its survival after
Fidel Castro dies – a move that, if it's to generate international
support and investment, will require a degree of political accommodation.

Not even Raul Castro himself knows whether reform will really occur. But
one thing is clear: The Black Spring heroes and their Ladies in White
have revealed to us, against all odds, that the Castros are not
invincible. After 51 years, this is a soothing thought.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute.

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