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US-CUBA: Clinton “Encouraged” by Prisoner Accord

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Jul 8 2010 (IPS) - In the most positive U.S. statement on developments in Cuba in recent memory, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday said the reported agreement between President Raul Castro and the Cuban Catholic Church regarding the release of 52 political prisoners was “very welcome”.

At the same time, independent analysts here said the accord, in which Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos also played a role, should bolster chances that Congress will approve pending legislation that would end the ban on U.S. citizens travelling to Cuba.

“All of this will strengthen the chances of passage (of the bill) by the House of Representatives,” said Geoff Thale, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

“To the extent the (Congressional) debate will be about the human rights situation in Cuba,” he told IPS, “this will provide evidence that the situation is improving and that engagement is more likely to produce results than isolation.”

Indeed, anti-Castro Cuban Americans expressed concern about the possible political implications here of a major prisoner release.

“Those who perish in Castro’s dungeons deserve better than to be used as ploys by the Castro apparatus to extract concessions and financial rewards that will enable the regime to extend its stranglehold on the Cuban people,” said Cuban-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as the Archdiocese of Havana announced the accord in Havana.

“We must not be fooled. Until all political prisoners are liberated; all political parties, labour unions, independent media are legalised and allowed to operate freely; until the Cuban people are able to exercise their universal rights free of coercion and intimidation, maximum pressure must be exerted on the Cuban tyranny,” she added.

Under the accord, which was the lead story in Thursday’s Washington Post, the Castro government will release 52 political prisoners over the next several months. Five of the prisoners are to be released immediately and sent to Spain, while six others are to go to prisons closer to their homes.

The 52 prisoners were among 75 dissidents – 23 of whom have already been released – who were rounded up during a major crackdown in March 2003 and sentenced to as much as 20 years for anti-state or counter-revolutionary activities.

It is not yet clear whether any or all of them will be required to leave the country as a condition of their release, although published reports have quoted Spanish government sources as indicating that Madrid will take them in. The State Department said Thursday they would also be “welcome” in the U.S. but that “those released should be free to decide whether to remain in Cuba and those who do leave should be able to return to their country.”

The Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights said the number of political prisoners held in the country’s prisons currently stands at 167, the lowest number since former President Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Release of the 52 would reduce their population by about one-third, according to Elizardo Sanchez, the Commission’s long-time president.

Amnesty International, which uses narrower criteria in determining who qualifies as a “prisoner of conscience”, said the release of the 52 would leave only one such prisoner, Rolando Jimenez Posada, in confinement. Posada, a lawyer who publicly protested the 2003 crackdown, was himself arrested in April of that year and is serving a 12- year sentence for “disrespecting authority and revealing secrets about state security police”.

“We welcome the commitment to release these prisoners, but there is no reason why all 53 prisoners of conscience held in Cuba should not be released immediately, said Susan Lee, director of Amnesty’s Americas Programme.

“Forcing them to leave the country would be yet another attempt to suppress freedom of expression and movement in Cuba,” she added.

Still, the release of such a large number of prisoners – the largest since Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba in 1998 – was viewed by most analysts here as a major move by Havana, albeit likely aimed more at the European Union (EU) than at the United States.

President Barack Obama, who has thus far taken only modest steps toward re-engaging Havana after the eight years in which George W. Bush pursued a policy of isolation and tightening the 50-year-old trade embargo, has insisted that freeing political prisoners was a pre-condition for a more- rapid improvement in bilateral ties.

That Cuba appears to be moving in that direction evoked what were the most-positive comments by a top administration official to date.

“We were encouraged by the apparent agreement between the Roman Catholic Church and the authorities in Cuba for the release of 52 political prisoners,” Clinton said Thursday.

“I spoke late last night with the Spanish Foreign Minister, Minister Moratinos, and we welcome this. We think that’s a positive sign. It’s something that is overdue, but nevertheless, very welcome,” she added.

The fact that Clinton said she had spoken to Moratinos about the accord was significant, according to Thale, who noted that Spain has been urging the EU to end its 14-year-old “Common Position” on Cuba that conditions normalisation of relations with Havana on major political reforms and the release of political prisoners.

Cuba has been under growing pressure to release prisoners since one of them, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died from a hunger strike in February, prompting a public statement of regret by Castro himself.

A second dissident, Guillermo Farinas, launched his own hunger strike shortly after Zapata’s death, drawing renewed international attention. He ended his strike Thursday after the Church’s announcement but warned he would start again if the government failed to abide by the accord.

Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega held talks about human rights and political prisoners beginning in May and culminating in the Archdiocese’s announcement. Ortega spent a week in Washington last month in connection with a bishops’ conference. The State Department has so far declined to say whether he met with U.S. officials while he was here.

His role in engaging the government was praised by a number of analysts Thursday. “What he has achieved is very important,” said Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute. “It’s a dialogue between the government and Cuban civil society in the person of the Catholic Church, which is the largest independent institution in Cuba,” he told IPS.

“What’s more important is that the Cuban government has made no secret about this at all and has repeatedly informed the Cuban public that it is talking to the Church about human rights issues,” he added.

“I’d give most of the credit to the Catholic Church and the Spanish,” said Wayne Smith, who headed the U.S. Interest Section in Havana in the late 1970s and early 1980s and has long campaign for normalisation of bilateral relations. “They have long indicated that what we need is respectful dialogue, and they’ve entered it, and that’s the way you get somewhere.”

Still, most analysts hedged on whether the accord marked a new era of political reform in Cuba. “You shouldn’t overstate it and say political change is coming to Cuba,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a hemispheric think tank. “But it’s also a mistake to dismiss it and think that nothing has changed.”

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.

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