Saturday, Pope Francis arrives in Cuba. Last Friday, Cuba announced it’s pardoning 3,522 prisoners. Cause and effect in action — and that’s about all this gesture from the Cuban government likely means.
No need to speculate on whether this is a real sign that after 56 years the Castro regime is finally easing its grip on 11 million Cubans — as is the desired result following the U.S. announcement in December of thawing diplomatic ties with the island. That’s just not how dictatorships work.
It’s well known that Cuba empties and fills its jails according to what’s politically expedient — and makes it look like a benevolent government to the outside world, especially just before the international spotlight shines on the island.
Those set to be pardoned are men and women, young and old or infirm who are first-time offenders who committed nonviolent crimes. But none of the regime’s thousands of political prisoners are among them. We hope the pope has something to say about that. After all, recent figures show arrests and detentions on the island continue unabated.
It’s not the first time Cuba has made a show of releasing prisoners — a favorite bargaining tool of the Castro brothers.
In 1978, Fidel Castro released almost 3,800 political prisoners in a deal with President Jimmy Carter’s administration. Before that, of course, there was a deal brokered for the release of the Cubans captured during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Cuba got $10 million in medical supplies.
And twice before, in advance of papal visits, the Cuban government has released prisoners, all for show before filling the jails again after the pope’s plane went wheels up.
In 1998, Fidel Castro released 300 prisoners ahead of Pope John Paul II’s visit. And in 2011, Raúl Castro released nearly 3,100 ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit.
A month after the U.S. announced it would reestablish diplomatic ties with the island, Cuba, as a show of good will, released 53 dissidents. Many of the prisoners, it turned out, had nearly served their sentences or been released months earlier. In other words, it was an empty gesture.
But those who know the machinations of the Cuban government think the latest prisoner-release announcement was moved up to distract the international press. Thursday, Castro’s partner in repression, Venezuela, handed renowned democracy leader, Leopoldo López, a 13-year prison sentence — an outrage for a political dissident guilty of no real crime, just that of opposing President Nicolás Maduro’s regime.
International headlines Friday should have been about Mr. López’s sentencing, instead they trumpeted how nice Cuba is to be releasing prisoners. Well-played.
What Cuba really wants is economic growth. The regime wants to open its doors to U.S. business, investment and tourism as China and Vietnam have done. What it doesn’t want is its citizens speaking out against the government.
But it’s incumbent upon the United States to make clear that Cuba can’t have the former without eliminating its restrictions on the latter; without freeing its political prisoners, incarcerated on trumped-up charges and tried in kangaroo courts.
U.S. diplomacy hinges on the belief that normalizing diplomatic ties and trade with nations like Cuba will change everything. But that has yet to be seen.
Cuba must to do more than these fake gestures of prisoner releases and offer up real, and permanent, human-rights reform.