A sustained effort of relatively quiet European diplomacy on the part of the European Union and the Roman Catholic Church towards Cuba on the issue of human rights, has brought a result, with the Cuban Government’s announcement at the end of last week of its intention to release fifty-two persons held in prison for some years. The decision appears to be qualified by a complementary decision that those released should go, in effect into exile, to Spain.
Over the last decade or so, both the EU, and the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba and in Rome, have been pressing the Cuban government to undertake some movement on its detention of persons who had persisted in publicly expressing opposition to the regime. The European Union had virtually made such a Cuban response a sine qua non of the normalization of relations with the Cuban government, but to the EU, the Cuban response seemed to periodically meander between an intention to ease the situation and resisting what it considered undue EU pressure. When, earlier this year, the Spanish Government indicated that it intended to make the amelioration of EU-Cuba relations one of the objectives of its EU Presidency, it began a series of diplomatic manoeuvres towards the Cuban Government in that regard. The response of the Cubans was, to the EU, insufficiently responsive. But the death of Orlando Zapata, the first of the prisoners on a protest hunger strike, and the unyielding response of the Cuban government to international protest, narrowed the negotiating space of the Spanish government. The adoption, however, of the hunger strike weapon by yet another prisoner, gave the Roman Catholic church an opportunity to heighten its intervention in a context in which relations between the local Church and the State had also been characterized by persistent discussions mediated by the Papacy.
The persistence of the Church and Cuban Archbishop Ortega, no doubt bolstered by the determined intention of the second hunger striker, Guillermo Farinas, to follow his predecessor in pursuing his objective unto death, seems to have given the Cuban Government pause. President Raul Castro had probably calculated that a second death would have turned EU willingness to facilitate Cuba’s normalization of relations with the North Atlantic countries towards a hardening of relations towards the regime, given, in particular, that, for one thing, the Spanish Social Democratic government has always felt itself concerned to take into account the concerns of international civil society, including institutions like Human Rights Watch.
The Cuban government has been aware that, within the North Atlantic, or Euro-American arena, it has been important to sustain a certain amount of support from the Europeans and the Canadians, in the context of the difficult evolution of economic policy which the post-Fidel administrators of the system are seeking to undertake. And although they have been somewhat harsher on President Obama now than they were on his assumption of office, the Cuban authorities well know that in the context of US-Latin American relations and the concern of leading Latin American governments to encourage the US towards normalization, the President is the most sympathetic American leader that Cuba could have at this time. He has encouraged the continued expansion of agricultural trade in particular with Cuba, at a time when the country’s agriculture is at one of its lowest ebbs since the Fidelistas came to power. At this time too, in addition to having the sympathetic ear of President Lula, and of President Calderon of Mexico who replaced a quite unsympathetic President Vicente Fox, President Raul Castro must be well aware that the international situation could not be more favourable to Cuba.
The American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has given a hint of an American willingness not to force the pace unduly, observing that the promised released of the prisoners is “something that is overdue but nevertheless very welcome”. This probably sets the tone for the wider sphere of American public opinion. But there will continue to be pressure from the human rights groups who insist, first, that the release of the prisoners on the basis that they leave their own country, is really a half measure and still prejudicial to their human rights. Secondly, they will continue to insist that the Cuban government give a proper accounting of the number of persons actually held for actions deemed “offences against the state”, but which would be deemed, in the West, part of the normal practice of their civic rights.
The Cuban government has also stood firmly on the issue of non-interference in its domestic affairs, particularly by the Western powers which it holds responsible for participation in an embargo that strengthened the decline of the country’s economic system. Indeed earlier in this decade, they stoutly resisted pressure on themselves, from Prime Minister Chretien of Canada, to ameliorate the human rights position in Cuba, even though at that time Canada was one of the countries maintaining a policy of economic openness and investment (constructive engagement versus the US policy of confrontation) towards the country. But the situation of the Cuban economy has become immeasurably worse with the current global crisis, and in turn the government seems not to have come to a conclusion to go through the process, undertaken by the Chinese in the last two decades, of economic liberalization of the major productive sectors of the economy, even when largely state led. No doubt they take the view that too rapid economic opening of an economy in such close proximity to the United States would, unlike the case of the more distant China, lead to a rate of political opening or liberalization that would systematically weaken the political regime, in the terms that it exists today.
But the Cuban government will also be aware of the current rapidity of global economic change. It will be well aware of a view, frequently expressed in the United States today, that a unilateral opening of the American economy vis-à-vis a Cuban economy in such close proximity, would have effects on a Cuban population anxious to increase its well-being which would probably be unwelcome to the regime, and which the regime would also have major difficulty in inhibiting. Reference is often made to the spread of internet technology and the US grant of permission to extend the scale of remittances to Cuba, which have both already substantially altered the access of the Cuban population to enhanced welfare.
The issue of the release of political prisoners, a term which the Cuban government does not accept as valid, must be seen in this context of the evolution of both Cuban domestic circumstances on the one hand (a worsening of the country’s economic situation including the material well-being of the citizens) and the evolution of pressures – diplomatic, from the changing of global economy, and in the behaviour of some of its sympathizers (Brazil, Argentina, Mexico) who all now seem to wish, while supporting Cuba, to seek new types of relations with the major Euro-American powers. For these sympathisers, as well as the traditional powers, the question of the evolution of the Cuban political system is becoming a matter to be persistently engaged, by Cuba itself, towards some form of resolution.
The statement by the Vatican spokesman on the release of the prisoners would seem to sum up this general sentiment: “The world looks with hope at the events coming out of Cuba. We all hope that this path continues”.