Prisoner releases under Raúl Castro raise hope for Cuba

Leader Fidel Castro ceded power to his brother last year after undergoing emergency surgery.

When prominent Cuban human rights advocate Francisco Chaviano was released earlier this month after 13 years in prison, he joined the growing list of political dissidents set free in the year since Fidel Castro, sidelined by poor health, ceded power to his brother Raúl.

The steady fall in Cuba's political prisoner population since Raúl Castro took the reins of power in July 2006 is leading some Cuba experts to conclude that some kind of new day is dawning on the Caribbean communist island.

Just don't expect that dawn to break, they add, in anything other than the slow and cautious manner in which the release of political prisoners has been carried out.

Still, this year's decline in imprisoned dissidents does appear to be different from the periodic peaks and valleys over recent decades in Cuba's political prisoner population – a rising and falling that has often tracked US policy towards Cuba.

"I don't see this as more of the same up-down, up-down, but as part of a trend toward the release of more political prisoners," says Wayne Smith, director of the Cuba Project at the Center for International Policy in Washington. It's a trend, he adds, that like other glimmers of an opening-up of the Cuban system, "is going to be happening slowly, very slowly."

The Havana-based Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an illegal but tolerated nongovernmental organization, reports a fall of more than 20 percent in the number of political prisoners over a year ago. The total, according to the group, stood at 246 as of June 30, down from 316 in 2006.

The number still represents by far the largest incarceration of prisoners of conscience of any country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the highest per capita rates anywhere in the world – leading some analysts to doubt that anything in Cuba has really changed.

"Yes, they have released some political prisoners, some because they fulfilled their sentences or others because of their health, but that doesn't translate into a real shift in the country," says Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. "I don't see any let-up in the repression in Cuba or [in] the harassment of the opposition people."

In some ways, Cuba is less free

Indeed, Dr. Suchlicki says, measures limiting Cubans' access to outside information sources – such as cutting off private Internet access or confiscating satellite dishes – have been stepped up. At the same time, harassment of dissidents by government-organized groups – an old tactic of the Castro regime – has continued, he adds. Groups like the Rapid Response Brigade often appear on the scene of impromptu demonstrations of rights groups like the Ladies in White, an organization of the wives of political prisoners.

What some experts see is a Cuba on standby, waiting for two shoes to drop: Fidel Castro's demise (rumors continue that is condition is deteriorating, though Cuban officials claim he is in fact recuperating from last year's illness) and the end of President Bush's term in January 2009. "I don't see a big change in the human rights situation, but I don't see it worsening either," says Uva de Aragón, associate director of the Cuba Research Institute at Florida International University. "Like most things in Cuba, it's in a waiting mode."

Change will come slowly

Raúl Castro is unlikely to initiate any major changes anytime soon, both because such would constitute a rejection of his brother's legacy while Fidel is still alive, and because he does not wield solitary control of the island. Some experts note, for example, that longtime Fidel confidant, reliable hard-liner and former feared interior minister Ramiro Valdez, has been brought back as communications minister – "Hardly a guy you'd turn to if you planned to open things up," says Suchlicki.

But that does not rule out some loosening up and some measures signaling – to Cubans especially – that change is possible within the Cuban system. And that is the signal some experts say Raúl is sending by letting political incarcerations decrease.

"These are significant numbers, but it doesn't represent greater political opening and greater freedom of speech on the island. It's more a reaching out to the youth, to academics, people they feel will play a role in the future, with the first signs of some possible future opening," says Elsa Falkenberger, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Some experts say more meaningful reforms in this "standby" period are likely to take place in the economic sector – the area in which Raúl had promoted changes in the past.

Youths eager for economic reform

"People in Cuba are waiting for change. They want to live better, they want better housing, improvement in food supplies, more small-business ownership, and those were Raúl's ideas in the '90s," says Ms. Aragón, referring to measures allowing private farmers' markets and small in-home businesses like hair salons and restaurants.

"Young people especially want to see some opportunities for their future, and Raúl has seemed to want to respond to that with a more open economic model," says Ms. Falkenberger. "We just have to remember that we can't just look at Raúl; others [in leadership] are going to be involved." Other experts say US action toward Cuba will, as always, continue to play a key role in the island's evolution.

"The Bush administration's nasty noises are part of the reason for things moving slowly," says Mr. Smith, who was a longtime State Department Cuba specialist. "If ever anything positive came out of the US, I believe we could see much more rapid releases" of political prisoners.

Smith says, for example, that Raúl has hinted at a willingness to open a dialogue with the US, "but we didn't exactly reciprocate. If anything, we did the opposite."

Experience suggests Cuba's leadership is likely to wait and see who occupies the White House after Mr. Bush before making any dramatic moves. A hint of one path US policy toward Cuba could take in 2009 comes from Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Christopher Dodd, who earlier this month called for an end to the US ban on travel to Cuba.

Saying a policy of "staying the course" on Cuba leaves the US on the sidelines at a critical moment, Senator Dodd added in a statement. "It is time to engage before it is too late to have a positive influence on the political landscape."

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