A Four-way Chess MatchThe announcement this weekend by dissidents inside the island that the Cuban government may be preparing to release additional political prisoners beyond the initial group of 52 announced a few months ago is encouraging on at least two fronts. According to news reports, Laura Pollan of the Ladies in White and Elizardo Sanchez of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) stated that their organizations have been asked by Church and European authorities to help identify political prisoners for potential release. If the Cuban government moves forward with the anticipated release of additional political prisoners, it would represent the largest release of political prisoners since 1979. While the release itself represents a significant, positive step by the Cuban government, the acknowledgement by the Cuban government of the role of independent civil society organizations in this process is an unprecedented step.

In July of this year, the Cuban government took an unprecedented step when it recognized the role of the Catholic Church of Cuba, the only non-governmental organization with national reach on the island, as a mediator in the process of releasing 52 political prisoners from the Black Spring of 2003. Since then, thirty-nine political prisoners have been released into exile in Spain. According to foreign officials and dissidents inside the island, the releases are the result of a decision by Raul Castro to “do away with a distraction” while he concentrates on reforming Cuba’s economy. Raul’s decision then to raise the profile of the Catholic Church of Cuba was encouraging, his current decision to recognize, although indirectly, civil society organizations such as the CCDHRN and the Ladies of White is another unprecedented sign by Cuba’s new leadership.

While news of the possibility of additional releases of political prisoners is an encouraging sign, it appears the Cuban government will also require these men to go into exile. Reports suggest that they will be exiled to Spain and that they will be allowed to take up to eight family members with them.  As long as the Cuban government requires that peaceful democracy advocates, unjustly imprisoned, be forced into exile as a condition of their release, any positive steps it takes will be clouded by this lamentable fact.

There is not doubt that the Cuban government’s release of a record number of political prisoners is a positive step. The fact that innocent individuals who were jailed without reason and who suffered for seven years under deplorable conditions are now free (even if in exile) is a good thing. Beyond the positive step of releasing these heroes, the Cuban government has, in effect, acknowledged the important roll civil society organizations can play in Cuba, first by choosing the Catholic Church as a mediator and now by recognizing the role the Ladies in White and the CCFHRN can play in the process of releasing all remaining political prisoners. The challenge now is for Cuban leaders to take steps to create a country where all Cubans are welcome and where living in freedom and prosperity isn’t analogous with leaving the island.

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