The announcement this week by the Catholic Church in Cuba that the Cuban government had committed to releasing the remaining 52 political prisoners from the black spring of 2003 has invited a variety of opinions inside and outside the island. While most inside the island and in the exile community have welcomed the announcement as breakthrough, defenders of the status quo in Washington and Miami have preferred to question its significance and criticize the Church in its role as a mediator.

Just last week, during a markup of a bill that would restore the rights of Americans to travel to Cuba in the House Agriculture Committee, defenders of the status quo argued against the bill’s approval and called for significant human rights concessions by the Cuban government. Now that the Cuban government has agreed to release 52 political prisoners, these same people dismiss it as a political ploy. In essence, the bar they had set as recently as one week ago, is no longer acceptable to them. Alternatively, many of Cuba’s most prominent dissidents, including former political prisoner Hector Palacios has stated that the move represents: “the most serious step taken by the Cuban government in 50 years.” Meanwhile, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a fellow member of the group of 75 dissidents arrested in the spring of 2003 who was released in 2004 for health reasons, published the following in a June 2, 2001 article:

“Articles published abroad suggest that the enemy is inside the Catholic Church, as stated by our compatriot Yoel Prado in a letter published in the New Herald last May 17. These long distance judges, never known to participate in any dissident activity while still in Cuba, forget that for years the Church has been attacked by the totalitarian regime that even banned Christmas celebrations, replacing them with January 1 and July 26 celebrations. They ignore that moderately and patiently in accordance with the conditions in the island, they have tried to work towards progress and harmony in Cuba, as can be read in the book "La Voz de la Iglesia en Cuba" with several dozens of episcopal documents related to the tireless actions directed to finding the road to understanding and peace among Cubans"

What defenders of the status quo are ignoring, or perhaps would prefer to ignore, is the fact that developments this week are the clearest evidence thus far of the growing strength of Cuba’s civil society. While there is no doubt that pressure from the European Union and the Catholic Church played a role in Cuba’s decision to release the political prisoners, it is clear that the impetus for the move was internal pressure created by Cuba’s civil society, including Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the Ladies in White, Guillermo Fariñas and the many active democracy advocates and former political prisoners such as Hector Palacios and Oscar Espinosa Chepe.

Two of the most important developments related to Cuba of the last 50 years, the announcement of the impending release of 52 political prisoners and the markup of a bill that would restore the rights of Americans to travel to Cuba, owe their success to the growing strength of Cuba’s civil society. For the first time, the Cuban and U.S. governments are reacting to the demands of Cuba’s democracy advocates. A month ago, 74 leading members of Cuba’s civil society including Guillermo Fariñas, Hector Palacios and Oscar Espinosa Chepe, wrote to the U.S. Congress urging them to pass the legislation stating that: “We share the opinion that the isolation of the people of Cuba benefits the most inflexible interests of its government, while any opening serves to inform and empower the Cuban people and helps to further strengthen our civil society.” For years now, the Ladies in White have marched peacefully every Sunday demanding the release of their family members. More recently, political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after fasting for over 80 days demanding better conditions for Cuba’s political prisoners. Just this week, Guillermo Fariñas ended his hunger strike after 135 days demanding the release of Cuba’s most sick political prisoners.

Instead of jockeying for influence in Miami and Washington, defenders of the status quo would do well to instead work to augment the growing strength and influence of Cuba’s civil society. Rather than attempting to do so through millions in U.S. taxpayer dollars, they should instead listen to and promote the type of policies that Cuba’s civil society tell us would be most effective in empowering them.

Similarly, the international community could recognize the important and courageous work of Cuba’s civil society by supporting the nomination of the Ladies in White for the Nobel Peace Prize. Such recognition would reaffirm and help protect the growing strength of Cuba’s civil society.    

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Date Title
7/7/10 Current Record