Six Cuban political prisoners arrived in Spain in August, joining 20 others who came to the country in July after being released from prison by the dictatorship of Cuban President Raúl Castro. They form part of a July 7 deal struck between communist Cuba and the Roman Catholic Church, brokered by the Socialist government in Spain, in which the Castro regime agreed to free 52 of 75 dissidents sentenced in 2003 to prison terms of up to 28 years.
Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero hopes the prisoner releases will help him to achieve a long-term political goal: to persuade other European Union countries to relax sanctions on Cuba. The EU's Common Position on Cuba, which dates back to 1996, links any improvement in relations to progress on democracy and human rights.
Cuban dissidents, however, say that even after the release of the 52, another 115 political prisoners will still be languishing behind bars in Cuba. One of the released prisoners, Regis Iglesias, told reporters in Madrid that by agreeing to release the dissidents, Havana is merely seeking to "clean up its image." He said Cuba will only change when there is "a transparent process of dialogue involving all the Cuban people, all ideological trends, both within the island and outside."
Immediately upon their arrival at the airport in Madrid, the former prisoners accused the Castro regime of using the release of the dissidents to hide the "criminal repression" of its opponents. They also issued a petition asking the EU to maintain its sanctions.
In a statement, the dissidents declared: "We, the Cuban prisoners of conscience exiled to Spain in recent days, aware of the manifest willingness of some European countries to modify the EU's 'Common Position' regarding Cuba, declare our disagreement with an approval of this measure, as we understand that the Cuban government has not taken steps that evidence a clear decision to advance toward the democratization of our country. Our departure for Spain must not be considered a good-will gesture, but a desperate action on the regime's part in its urgent quest for credits of every type. It is for that reason that we ask the countries of the European Union not to again soften their exigencies intended to achieve changes toward democracy in Cuba and to secure for all Cubans the same rights that European citizens enjoy."
The declaration has angered the Zapatero government, which rejects the idea that dictators should be isolated and views the normalization of EU relations with Cuba as a key foreign policy priority. After meeting Castro in Havana in July, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos proclaimed the opening of "a new phase in Cuba" and insisted that "there is no longer any reason to maintain the [EU's] Common Position" on Cuba.
But efforts by the Zapatero government to de-link political dialogue with Cuba from the issue of human rights on the island have failed due to strong resistance from other EU members — notably former communist countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, which insist that the EU should not fully normalize its ties with Cuba until civil and political freedoms are granted to all citizens.
Another former prisoner, Efren Fernández, said that "these releases do not mean that the regime is opening up; what they have is a strategy to buy time. It has been shown in recent days that there is criminal repression against dissidents in Cuba." He was referring to a new wave of arrests of dissidents, many of whom have been held for a few hours and then released.
Echoing concerns that the Castro regime has no intention of allowing political change on the island, the human rights group Amnesty International on August 17 called on Cuban authorities to end what it described as the "harassment" of the mother of dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died on February 23 after an 85-day hunger strike in prison. Amnesty said Reina Luisa Tamayo told the organization that she has been harassed repeatedly by authorities and government supporters during regular marches in memory of her son.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has been forced to defend itself against criticism from Cuban opposition activists who have complained that church officials left them out of their negotiations with the Castro government. In an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI that has been circulating in Spain, 165 top Cuban political activists, community organizers and dissidents said the Church and Castro ignored the needs of the country's political opposition in reaching the July 7 agreement. In their letter to the pope, the dissidents wrote, "a correct mediation on this topic should have included hearing the complaints of both sides and reconciling them. … We do not agree with the position taken by the Cuban religious hierarchy on behalf of political prisoners. It is lamentable and even embarrassing."
The letter also says that pressure on those who publicly oppose Cuba's communist system intensified after Castro said in a televised address on August 1 that, despite his government's agreement with the Catholic Church, "there will not be impunity for the enemies of the homeland." The letter says: "repression, hostility and arbitrary detentions have increased in recent days, after the threats of President Raúl Castro on August 1. It raises the question: Are they emptying the prisons just to fill them again?"
For its part, the Zapatero government has been working overtime to push back against all the negative press. In an effort to stop the media from reporting on conditions inside Cuba, Moratinos recently tried to prevent US Representative Lincoln Díaz-Balart (R-FL) from meeting with the former Cuban prisoners and their families in Madrid.
An account of a message that Moratinos sent to Díaz-Balart has been published by Emilio Ichikawa, a columnist for the Miami-based El Nuevo Herald. It says: "The night before my planned meeting with the ex-political prisoners in Madrid, Minister Moratinos sent me a message through the US State Department. His message said that the Spanish government was worried over my physical safety if the meeting with the ex-political prisoners were made public—in other words, if the press was present. (If anyone is interested in the 'message' Moratinos sent me'[Diaz-Balart said], which he obviously now denies sending, my office in Washington will gladly provide it to you.)
"Of course we went ahead and with pleasure had the press attend the meeting with the ex-political prisoners I had invited. But the actions on the part of Moratinos constitute a grotesque intent to threaten in order to hinder the presence of the press at the meeting with the ex-political prisoners. His actions demonstrate his clear attempt to censor in a dictatorial fashion. As my uncle Waldo Díaz-Balart once told me, "these people, if they could, would act just like Fidel Castro; it's just that they can't."