The announcement by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, that the Cuban government has agreed to the release of fifty-two political prisoners follows a pattern of imprisonment and release of regime opponents for the last fifty years and is the first of this scale since 1998. Why the move and what is its significance? [For a detailed exploration of Cuba's domestic scene, read Julia Sweig's book Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know.]
For Havana, the political prisoners have become an albatross for Raúl Castro's government. Since taking office in February 2008, Raúl has sought a rapprochement with the European Union and its member states. In 1996, the EU adopted what is known as the "common position," a policy of soft sanctions that links full economic cooperation with Cuba to improvements in human rights. The consensus for the common position has since eroded: A formal dialogue on civil-political rights has taken place in fits and starts, especially since Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero took office in 2004; and commercial and investment ties with Spain and throughout the EU have indeed grown with Cuba.
But the issue of political prisoners and human rights more broadly, dramatized by hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo's death in February, inflamed international public opinion, in Spain especially, and threatened to stall, if not kill, recent EU efforts to end the common position and normalize EU-Cuba relations.
In the United States, where the consensus for the embargo has likewise eroded in the American public and among Cuban-Americans--President Obama last year described the policy as "failed"--the Obama administration and some congressional opponents of the Cuban regime have cast political prisoners' release as a major obstacle to improvements in diplomatic ties and loosening of economic restrictions. A major catalyst for removing this obstacle has been the Catholic Church in Cuba. Through a variety of avenues--dialogue with Raúl Castro; published interviews; diplomacy with Spain, the EU, and the United States; and sponsorship of a number of semi-public discussions on Cuba's future with scholars--the church has made manifest the idea expressed by Pope John Paul II in his homily over a decade ago during his historic visit to Havana: Cuba "needs to open herself to the world, and the world needs to draw close to Cuba."
Yet despite the recent spotlight, within Cuba, dissidents and political prisoners are not at the center of the quite substantial debate taking place today over numerous state, social, institutional, educational, and economic reforms currently on the table. The release of prisoners helps create space at home and abroad for this debate, and the implementation of reforms under discussion, to move forward.
The release coincides with a potential turning point in U.S. policy toward Cuba. Congress is now considering legislation to lift the travel ban, and the administration is toying with new "people-to-people" measures to promote more contact between the two societies, short of full-blown free travel. Opponents of these steps, in Congress and in the administration, have long held out the political prisoner issue as the major source of their opposition to a change or even softening of the policy of embargo. Will they be able to take "yes" for an answer? The speed with which the United States and Russia are finding a mutually acceptable resolution to the scandal involving the Russian sleeper cells suggests that with some good diplomacy and a measure of political will, it is possible to imagine a solution on the horizon related to the "Cuban Five." And releasing an American, Alan Gross, who is neither a political prisoner nor a spy, but a USAID contractor naively caught up in "promoting democracy," should be cinch.