THE reported release of six prominent political prisoners in Cuba this week has caused a swell of positive press and international commentary for the Caribbean island nation -- which was undoubtedly the motive behind it.
But observers of Cuba's human rights record both within and without the country say that as encouraging as the releases may be, they are still far from signaling the kind of fundamental shift in Cuba's approach to internationally recognized human and civil rights that would be true cause for celebration.
''If you're satisfied with symbolic overtures or goodwill-earning measures, then yes, these [releases] would be important for that,'' says a Western diplomat here. ''But if you're looking for structural or institutional changes that would put guarantees behind Cubans' rights, then there aren't any.''
International human rights organization France Libertes said in a statement Tuesday that it had been informed by Cuban President Fidel Castro Ruz that six Cuban prisoners, including two of the country's most internationally prominent political prisoners, would be released. It is not yet clear if the prisoners would be allowed to stay in Cuba or would be released on condition of exile.
The French group headed a delegation of human rights activists that was allowed into the country earlier this month to meet with two-dozen Cuban political prisoners. That visit, the first by private human rights groups since 1988, gave rise to hopes that Cuba might be signaling the same kind of liberalization in its approach to human rights that it has embarked on economically.
But just last week those hopes were dashed when the government launched a roundup of a group of political activists.
And earlier in the month a prominent Havana civil-rights advocate, Francisco Chaviano Gonzalez, who had been held for 11 months on charges of possessing state secrets, was abruptly sentenced to 15 years imprisonment -- after a one-day trial that allowed no defense witnesses. Mr. Chaviano had also figured on France Libertes' list of prisoners for which it had special concerns.
So, as well-received as the France Libertes announcement was, taken in Cuba's broader context it does not indicate a departure from a tried pattern, observers says. The government still uses vague accusations like ''possession of enemy propaganda,'' ''illegal association,'' and a law against ''dangerousness'' to marginalize threatening individuals and to keep Cubans guessing about what is legal and what is not.
''Political persecution in Cuba goes in waves,'' says Joanne Mariner, Cuba researcher with Human Rights Watch/Americas in Washington. ''Improvements seem to come and go, but it's never really a matter of change.''
Until last week's roundup, such Cuba observers as Human Rights Watch were finding grounds for some encouragement. Political arrests were down since a flurry that followed last August's street disturbances; organized public harassment of dissidents had all but disappeared; and those rights activists who were arrested were generally given a ''friendly warning'' to lay low.
Some government officials were also telling observers privately that more improvements could be expected to come gradually.
Then came the sentencing of Mr. Chaviano and last week's arrests. Rights observers say the most disturbing twist in the arrests of the 18 activists -- all members of the illegal Cuban Party for Human Rights -- is that they were charged with a crime, either possession of ''enemy propaganda'' or ''illegal association.''
''That party was getting up to about 400 members, which is tremendous for an illegal organization in Cuba,'' says Vladimirio Roca, one of the country's most prominent dissidents. ''Clearly it was perceived as becoming a threat.''
For its part, the government makes no excuses for its one-party system -- and says it can hold its head high over its human rights record -- especially when that record is compared with the rest of Latin America.
''We know we have a different political system from other countries in the hemisphere, and we know others may not like [ours],'' says Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, director of the America department of the foreign relations ministry. ''But that is not enough to accuse us of being human rights violators.''
What's more, officials say, Cuba believes in other ''human rights'' that neighboring countries increasingly violate. Here in Havana the streets are certainly safer than most cities of 2 million people across the Americas, children go to school, and people have access to some measure of health care.
Cuba defends record
Officials also say that it is only a malicious obsession with Cuba, primarily on the part of the United States, that puts Cuba in the human rights spotlight. ''We have done much more on human rights than any Latin American country,'' says Mr. de Cossio. ''Where are the death squads, the disappearences, the mass graves?'' he asks. ''We don't have them here.''
Many international human rights observers concur. But at least one other well-known Cuban dissident, Elizardo Sanchez, calls his country a ''gulag'' and claims that Cuba has the world's highest percentage of the population behind bars -- perhaps three times that of the US.
And while Mr. Sanchez says he agrees with his government that its fulfillment of many social rights ''is still better than in most other countries or Latin America,'' he adds that ''respect for political rights, the rights in the universal declaration, is among the worst in the world.''
Such statements leave the government unmoved. Cuban officials insist as strongly as ever that current and future economic reforms are designed to preserve Cuba's brand of socialism and one-party politics. At the same time, they point to recent progress in the treatment here of such minorities as homosexuals as evidence that freedom of expression in Cuba is indeed broadening. The message seems to be: more freedom, yes -- as long as it's not political.