Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dressing Cuban Political Prisoners

Dressing Cuban Political Prisoners

Anthony DePalma
Author of City of Dust (FT Press), Reporter, Writer-in-Residence at
Seton Hall University
Posted: July 22, 2010 01:17 PM

Before they were flown from Havana to Madrid last week, seven Cuban
prisoners of conscience were taken from their stinking cells to a
hospital where for three days they were screened, bathed and fed. Then,
before they boarded the jet that would fly them to Spain, they were
given strange new wardrobes consisting of slacks, long sleeved dress
shirts and brightly colored ties. That ensemble may be standard in many
parts of the world, but it is almost unheard of in the tropical heat of
Havana. The message clearly was that these men were not being welcomed
back into Cuban society. They were being exiled, their pasts erased.

"They gave us chicken to eat and we had air conditioning in the
hospital," Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso, a 60-year-old independent
journalist who was one of the seven who were imprisoned since the
so-called Black Spring of 2003, told reporters. "It was as if they were
trying to wash away in three days the whole seven years that they did
not consider us real people."

The sudden release of the seven, which is expected to be followed by the
freeing of up to 45 other political prisoners in the coming months, is
being seen in some parts of the world as an attempt by Raúl Castro and
the gang of old men who rule Cuba today to wipe away some of the stink
that has settled on them in the months since one prisoner of conscience,
Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died in February while on a hunger strike to
improve conditions for all political prisoners.

Tamayo's death aroused much anger and concern in all corners of the
globe, and brought near universal condemnation (President Luiz Inacio
Lula da Silva was an exception. He did not want to get involved in the
internal affairs of another country, and defended Cuba's right to
self-determination.) Make no mistake -- that external pressure was the
principal reason the Castro government agreed to meet with Catholic
Church leaders, who in the past had managed to secure the release of
scores of political prisoners. As a result of the initial talks, some
prisoners were moved to jail cells closer to their homes to facilitate
family visits. And one very ill prisoner was released.

In early June, Spain's foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, arrived
in Havana just as another political prisoner and activist, Guillermo
Fariñas, was reportedly on the point of death from a prolonged hunger
strike. The Spanish government had tried to push for an overhaul of
Europe's policy toward Cuba during its recently expired tenure of the
rotating presidency of the European Union. Since 1996, the EU has held a
'common position' toward Cuba that said improved relations depended on
the Castro government offering greater guarantees of democracy and human
rights. But the Spanish government has conceded that the approach
accomplished little.

However three-way negotiations between Cuban officials, church leaders
and Mr. Moratinos did result in the agreement to free 52 prisoners,
which prompted Mr. Fariñas to end his hunger strike.

Spain's role in the release of the prisoners might seem to suggest
growing influence by Cuba's founding nation. But if history is any
indicator, that might not be the case. In the past, other nations,
namely Canada and Mexico, have intervened in Cuba's domestic affairs
only to be slapped down later by Havana. The underlying truth is that
the Castro brothers have been using prisoner releases as bargaining
chips since at least 1961 when they sent back more than 1100 warriors
captured at the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Their first bid was 500
large farm tractors. But Fidel Castro quickly raised the ante to $28
million. In the end, the prisoners were released in exchange for $53
million worth of food and medicine.

What are the Castros looking for now? Five Cubans are being held in
American jails on charges of spying, and the Castro brothers would very
much like to have them back. Perhaps Raúl is hoping for Spain to
intercede on his behalf when the European Union reconsiders its position
on Cuba. Or maybe he hopes that such positive developments will
encourage the U.S. congress to ease restrictions on American trade with
Cuba, as a House of Representatives committee voted to do last month.

Whatever the Castros' motives, it is important not to lose sight of the
deplorable conditions that are forcing Raúl Castro to become more
responsive. Several hurricanes last year and a deteriorating
infrastructure have hollowed out Cuba's rickety economy and made
horrendous conditions there worse. In the same week the prisoners landed
in Spain, a desperate Cuban man was picked up in the waters off of
Florida after spending three weeks in a raft made of Styrofoam. He was
emaciated, but happy to be free. The Cubans in Spain said they are
refugees, and they are not free.

What will happen to the political prisoners who refuse to go into exile
but insist on remaining in Cuba, as one of them, Dr. Óscar Elias Biscet,
has already vowed. The Castros, who were exiled by dictator Fulgencio
Batista in 1955, understand the benefits of ridding themselves of the
dissidents, and the dangers of living with them. With the eyes of the
world now watching for signs of real change, will they be willing to
allow freed dissidents to remain in Cuba and re-enter society, or will
their response be to also present them with long-sleeved shirts and ties?

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