Don’t cave to Cuba’s games over political prisoners

An editorial from Ambassador James Cason in the Sun-Sentinel.

Don’t cave to Cuba’s games over political prisoners

By James Cason

In 2003, Fidel Castro sentenced to long prison terms 75 dissidents Amnesty International said had not advocated any kind of violence. At the time, I was the chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba, and the regime charged that all of them were mercenaries of the United States. Now, Raul Castro says they are political prisoners, and has begun to release the 52 still remaining behind bars.

Unfortunately, a measure some construed as the first step in the much-awaited thaw in the regime’s relations with its own people turns out to be an effort to consolidate its power at home and abroad. The regime wants to force them into exile, and the Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who defends the regime, says the release will ensure that the European Union ends its common position predicated on substantial government reforms, and Europe’s dialogue with the opposition.

Seven years ago, analysts said their sentencing to long prison terms would end Cuba’s democratic opposition. Instead, the opposition continued to grow. Tragically, hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail, and neither the Cuban nor the Spanish governments nor the Catholic Church have said anything about their possible release.

Those freed owe their release to the sustained international pressure on Havana, and the steadfastness of the political opposition, which has endured all kinds of abuse.

Without the internal opposition, the engagement by the church or by foreign governments achieves nothing. Aggressive niceness has never moved dictators to make concessions; they only respond when pressured.

What is the price Cuba’s freedom fighters have to pay for the release of some of their own? Will they be forced into exile? Will European diplomats snub Oswaldo Paya, Marta Beatriz Roque, Vladimiro Roca, Rene Gomez Manzano and others? Will foreign aid flow into Havana’s coffers when Havana is bankrupt and Spanish companies cannot withdraw their money from Cuban banks? Will Cuba be allowed into the Cotonou tariff agreement, without having to fulfill the human rights conditions required from all others that apply for special access to European markets?

While Raul Castro talks with the Spanish and the Vatican, he refuses to engage in the most important conversation: with his own citizens and internal opponents. By leaving the opposition out, the general hopes to delegitimize them and deny them their rightful voice.

Castro apologists say Cuba is reforming and there is no need for outside pressure. It’s just the opposite; we should stay the course until all prisoners are released and Cuba begins serious reforms. That is the right approach, not acquiescing to the forced exile of the opposition, and certainly not rewarding the regime with millions of American tourist dollars for releasing innocent people who should not have been in prison to begin with.

Ambassador James Cason, a retired career foreign service officer, served as chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana from 2002 to 2005.