“Did you ask if we had political prisoners?” asked a flustered Raúl Castro. “Give me the list of political prisoners and I will release them immediately. Just mention a list. What political prisoners? Give me a name or names. After this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners. And if we have those political prisoners, they will be released before nightfall.”
On the verge of apoplexy at being sandbagged by a reporter during his joint press appearance with Barack Obama, the Cuban president chose the Captain Renault approach to addressing the journalist’s question. Shocked, shocked, he was, that political oppression might be going on inside his country. Meanwhile, hours before the U.S. president’s arrival, the National Revolutionary Police (PNR) had rounded up some fifty mostly middle aged women who, as they do every Sunday, were peacefully protesting the continued detention of their loved ones, political prisoners in Castro’s Cuba. Western reporters caught on pixels and flashed across the globe photos of the Ladies in White being dragged kicking and screaming into police vans. It was not an auspicious start to the first official visit to Cuba by a U.S. president in eighty-eight years.
The round-up wasn’t limited to the Ladies in White. The police had their hands full. Besides arresting the grandmothers and homekeepers of the Ladies in White, they also hauled off over a dozen other pro-democracy activists who carry out protests under the banner, “Todos Marchamos” (“We’re All Marching”). The latter carried signs proclaiming, “Obama’s trip to Cuba isn’t for fun. No to violations of human rights,” and “Obama, we have a dream: a Cuba without Castros.” Meanwhile, in another part of town, several male dissidents who had interrupted an ESPN live broadcast, shouting “Freedom for political prisoners!” and “Down with Castro!” were roughed up, thrown into police vehicles and taken away.
Clearly, all is not well in the socialist state of Cuba. In fact, a recently released report by the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation finds that there were more 1,400 arbitrary political arrests during March, including nearly 500 during Obama’s visit to Cuba last month.
Human rights groups, including the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, gladly obliged President Castro by promptly providing the prisoner lists he demanded during his press conference with Obama. There are, however, no hard and fast figures on political prisoners in Cuba for a variety of reasons. For one, the Cuban authorities now seldom pass multi-year sentences on political activists. They resort instead to frequent arrests and short-term detentions in order to harass dissidents rather than turn them into martyrs. Often, police will hold detainees for a few hours or days, then release them far from their homes. Another reason for the fuzziness of the numbers around political detainees is that some individuals charged under the infamous legal rubric, “potential dangerousness,” either fall into a gray area or are actually recidivist, usually petty, criminals.
Of the 8,600 politically motivated detentions counted by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation in 2015 and the several hundred arrests so far this year, almost all went through Castro’s catch and release system. Of fifty-three prisoners the Cuban government agreed to release in the lead-up to the Obama visit, half were rearrested and four exiled abroad. A leading anti-regime group, the Patriotic Union of Cuba, claimed more than 260 of its members were taken into custody on the eve of President Obama’s arrival in Havana – almost all have been released. The fifty-odd members of the Ladies in White were also released, including leader Berta Soler, just in time to join other dissidents for a meeting with Obama at the U.S. embassy. The fact checking organization PolitiFact can only conclude that there is at least a “handful” of political prisoners. Most experts believe Cuba’s steady prisoner of conscience population numbers in the fifty-to-sixty range.
One of these longer term prisoners, journalist Adolfo Fernández Sainz, described to me the game of wits and coercion that goes on between non-criminal inmates and their jailers. One of 75 writers and librarians swept up in the “Black Spring” crackdown of 2003, Fernández spent half of a fifteen-year sentence in the Castros’ prisons. They were Amnesty International prisoners of conscience. Initially, he was beaten, fed bad food, kept with hardened criminals and denied familial visitations. He and other political prisoners, however, soon learned how to apply leverage over the authorities. Hunger strikes usually got Cuban officials to back down. Fernández carried out five himself, severely affecting his health. They also refused to engage in “re-education through labor,” insisting they did not need to be “re-educated.” Finally, they learned how to parlay the attention they received from foreign governments and human rights organizations to their advantage. Whenever maltreatment leaked out to the world, the Cuban government incurred foreign pressure, compelling it to ease up on the prisoners. Fernández’s wife and daughter agitated for his release as founding members of the Ladies in White. “It was a constant chess game of willpower. And we won,” he said.
The game of wits is ongoing but has evolved on both sides. For example, social media now empower the dissidents. A flood of tweets and Facebook postings with photos goes out to the world the instant police raid demonstrators, according to Cuban-American activist Maurico Claver-Carone. “Then the bloggers join in.” That the government is now always under a social media looking glass has compelled it to resort to harassment over extended imprisonment, he said. “This, in turn, has emboldened regime opponents. As a result, numbers of demonstrators are on the rise.” Claver-Carone’s Cuba-based sources tell him that there is an ongoing tension between the street-level PNR cops and their hard core Ministry of Interior masters. The cops dislike having to haul the gentle Ladies in White and others into custody. Sometimes they tip off the demonstrators in advance of a planned raid, thus giving them time to flee before the police arrive.
When he first heard that President Obama would visit Cuba, Adolfo Fernández Sainz scoffed at American naïveté. He has since changed his mind. Now working with the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, Fernández told me the Cuban people have been uplifted by the president’s visit. Feedback from his contacts in Cuba’s activist community is “overwhelmingly positive.”
Accompanying the Obama delegation, Baruch College professor and Cuba expert Ted Henken echoed Fernández’s sentiments. “The air feels different for many Cubans,” he told me shortly after his return from Havana. “Morale is up.” Henken predicts that Obama’s message of the Cuban people’s “capacity to speak and assemble and vote for their leaders” hit a chord with Cubans. He senses that they will be “pushing the envelope more,” challenging the government by joining demonstrations in greater numbers. But more Cubans will prefer to take advantage of growing space that will come with Raúl Castro’s easing of government control over parts of the economy and the opening up of American trade and investment, particularly after the embargo is lifted. The Cuban government nonetheless will undoubtedly not let up on its strategy of keeping pro-democracy activists off guard through regular raids and short-term incarcerations. But the bottom line in this visit is that “Obama hit a home run,” according to Henken. And it will pay dividends.
Washington has learned that opening of relations with authoritarian regimes does not magically bring democratic freedoms. China continues to oppress dissidence four decades on with normalized relations with the U.S. The same goes for Vietnam after two decades of full relations with Washington. Politicians who insist on withholding diplomatic relations until “all political prisoners are released” and/or “democratic freedoms are adopted” are purposely disingenuous. Theirs is a short-term personal political agenda for the most part. A longer term, historical focus is what is needed. Growing engagement over a period of years brings with it greater prosperity in countries like China and Vietnam with consequent growing middle classes who, over time, begin to agitate for more say in how their societies are run. We saw this in South Korea, Taiwan and Latin American countries as military regimes gradually gave way to functioning democracies.
When President Obama met with Cuban dissidents at the U.S. embassy, he praised them for their “extraordinary courage.” In his keynote speech, the president appealed to universal freedoms, including “that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights.” But he also talked of “an evolution taking place inside of Cuba, a generational change.” After so many decades of dictatorship, it will take a generation, if not more, for Cuba to catch up with a post-cold war world.
[The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States Government.]