On Probation: The Release of Political Prisoners in Cuba

By Gabriel C. Salvia Created: July 20, 2010 Last Updated: July 20, 2010
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ollowing a meeting on July 7 of the Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos and Cardinal Ortega of the Cuban Catholic Church with Cuban President Raúl Castro, the Catholic Church announced the Cuban government will set free 52 political prisoners. The prisoners had been detained during the repressive crackdown known as the “Cuban Black Spring” in March 2003, processed through summary trials, and most of them sentenced to around 20 years in prison.

Immediately one can listen to the optimistic readings on political changes in Cuba, as if ignoring the repressive regime’s skill at holding power for more than half a century. However, so long as human rights are considered a crime, nothing will change in that country and those who are being released can be sent back to prison anytime.

The judicial-political regime in Cuba violates most of the basic guarantees established in all the international instruments approved over the last decades, and that currently are part of the international law on human rights. In this sense, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on 2006 recommended the government of Cuba “order the immediate and unconditional release of all the victims nullifying the sentences against them, for being based in laws that impose illegitimate restrictions to their human rights.”

More recently, in November 2009, a categorical report by Human Rights Watch stated: “Raúl Castro’s government has used draconian laws and sham trials to incarcerate scores more who have dared to exercise their fundamental freedoms. Raúl Castro’s government has relied in particular on a provision of the Cuban Criminal Code that allows the state to imprison individuals before they have committed a crime, on the suspicion that they might commit an offense in the future.

“This ‘dangerousness’ provision is overtly political, defining as ‘dangerous’ any behavior that contradicts socialist norms. The most Orwellian of Cuba’s laws, it captures the essence of the Cuban government’s repressive mindset, which views anyone who acts out of step with the government as a potential threat and thus worthy of punishment. … The ‘dangerous’ activities in these cases have included handing out copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, staging peaceful marches, writing news articles critical of the government, and attempting to organize independent unions.”

In this sense, the important matter in terms of political opening in Cuba was set in the Declaration “The Exercise of Rights Is No Crime,” signed by 75 judicial, political, and social figures from Latin America, among them Julio César Strassera, Patricio Aylwin, Graciela Fernández Meijide, Guillermo O’Donnell, Daniel Sabsay, Vicente Palermo and Emilio De Ipola: “We agree that the region should normalize its relations with Cuba, but for that the government of the Castro brothers must harmonize its internal rules eliminating the restrictions to the most elemental human rights. … It is time for Latin America to stand side by side with Cuban democrats and demand the regime of the Castro brothers begin a political opening guaranteeing very elemental rights such as the freedom of association and speech, something that would allow the release of many political prisoners for the principle of the validity of the mildest law.”

That is to say, instead of limiting to ask the freedom of political prisoners—something praiseworthy—democratic governments who want to positively influence the political opening in Cuba, must require the Cuban government first introduce changes in its constitution and criminal code, and erase special laws like number 88, thus recognizing fundamental freedoms.

If the exercise of rights continues to be criminalized in Cuba, no political change can be expected on the island and even less a democratic transition, so there is no profound reason for the European Union to modify its common position adopted in 1996.

Gabriel C. Salvia is Chairman of the Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America (CADAL).


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