The announcement on Wednesday that Cuba is to release 52 prisoners is a very positive development because the move once again puts the ball back in the Obama administration’s court. It is now up to Washington to make the next step if the idiotic Cuban embargo is to end.
Last year, following his relaxation of the restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting their families in the island, Barack Obama said he could not do any more in moving towards a new relationship with Cuba until the Cuban government responded in some way. Top of his list of demands was the release of political prisoners.
The wheels of diplomacy grind slowly in Havana, but now at last Raúl Castro has acted after negotiations with the Catholic church and the Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos.
The result will be freedom for the remainder of the 75 dissidents arrested and jailed in 2003 for having taken money from the United States in order to publish critical reports on the island on US websites. It will leave only about a dozen of Amnesty International’s list of prisoners of conscience in jail.
Furthermore, the releases are not contingent on the prisoners leaving Cuba. In previous cases that has been the condition – exchanging imprisonment for exile. But here those released will not be obliged to leave. Although the first five do appear to have chosen that option, several of the 75 that were released recently, such as Héctor Palacios and Óscar Espinosa Chepe remain in Cuba and are politically active.
However, as other commentators have rightly pointed out, there is another important feature of this deal: it shows that a political dialogue among the Cuban people is now developing. Fidel Castro always denied this was necessary because, he claimed, the political system represented the popular will. But this episode shows that there is now a field of exchange between the Cuban government and a section of Cuban civil society in the guise of the Catholic church. More importantly, by publishing the Church’s press release on the prisoner deal in the Communist party newspaper, Granma, the government has ipso facto acknowledged that such a dialogue is taking place.
It is the latest and surest sign that Cuba is changing under the guidance of Raúl Castro.
But above all, this deal shows that talking to Havana constructively does bring results. Of course, Cuba remains a one-party state and is a long way from liberal democracy, but this is a huge concession by Havana in its long-standing confrontation with Washington. It shows what is possible by discussion and engagement rather than confrontation with the island.
The signal is very positive. It is now up to Cuba’s critics in the liberal “west” to respond. The EU should now end its ludicrous “common position” that makes co-operation dependent on Cuba changing its political and economic system, and the US should begin to dismantle its cruel and useless embargo.
Stephen Wilkinson, the director of the Centre for Caribbean and Latin American Research and Consultancy at London Metropolitan University.