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Breakthrough in Cuba?

July 12, 2010

The release of 52 political prisoners by Cuba has been welcomed by the US but while experts admit that this represents a significant shift, Cuba needs to take further steps before relations can be normalized.

US and Cuban flags
The release is unlikely to solve the rift in Cuba-US relations

The decision by Cuba to release 52 political prisoners has been welcomed by officials in the United States and the European Union but while politicians on both sides of the Atlantic admit that the move represents a significant shift, the communist Caribbean nation needs to take further steps before negotiations on normalizing relations can begin.

The deal to release the prisoners, who were among 75 dissidents rounded up during a major crackdown in March 2003 on anti-state and counter-revolutionary charges, was brokered by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and Cardinal Jaime Ortega, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba. The 23 other detainees from the 2003 purge have already been released.

A number of released prisoners arrived in Spain on Tuesday. The United States also agreed to house freed prisoners deported from Cuba but issued a statement saying that "those released should be free to decide whether to remain in Cuba and those who do leave should be able to return to their country."

The latest prisoner release reduces the number of political prisoners held in Cuban jails to 167, the lowest number since Fidel Castro took power in 1959, and some observers believe that the move represents a further shift in policy by the Raul Castro government.

Prisoner release eases pressure on Castro government

Julia Sweig, the director for Latin America studies at the Council for Foreign Relations in Washington, believes that the prisoner release could provide Cuba with some breathing space to address domestic issues regarding much-needed reforms.

The President of Cuba, Raul Castro
Raul Castro hopes to assuage international pressureImage: AP

"I believe we are seeing a gradual reform of Cuba under Raul Castro," she told Deutsche Welle. "By releasing these prisoners, Raul is creating space internationally and domestically to press forward."

Professor Guenther Maihold, an expert on Latin American foreign policy and international relations at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, disagrees. He says the prisoner release is just a tactic to distract the international community.

"This does not represent a real change in Cuba's policies," Maihold told Deutsche Welle. "There are still many issues that are troubling to the international community, mainly in the human rights arena, and this prisoner release was engineered to limit the international damage to Cuba’s foreign policy. This doesn't represent any change within Cuba and it is unlikely that we'll see any domestic changes in terms of rights and democracy."

"What we could see is Spain pushing for a change to the EU's 14-year-old 'Common Position' on Cuba which demands major political reforms and the release of political prisoners in return for normal relations but whether every EU member state will go with this, it's hard to say."

International pressure forcing Cuba to make gestures

The international pressure on Castro to release prisoners has increased dramatically since Orlando Zapata Tamayo, one of the dissidents captured in the 2003 purge, died from a hunger strike in February.

Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas
Farinas' hunger strike will resume if promises are brokenImage: AP

His death caused outrage and forced Raul Castro to make a public statement of regret. Tamayo's death prompted a second prisoner, Guillermo Farinas, to begin his own hunger strike. It is thought that Farinas' demands - which included the release of 24 ailing fellow political prisoners - in addition to growing international condemnation, led to the freeing of the 52.

"The death of Tamayo was a huge blow to the international reputation of Cuba," said Maihold. "Again, Castro attempted to limit the damage in the international arena by opening negotiations with the Catholic Church about the prisoner releases. He wanted to present the outside world with a humanitarian gesture but in reality, it was designed to ease some of the pressure."

While the decision to release the 52 prisoners was welcomed in Washington, prompting the most positive comments by a top administration official to date, the US State Department was quick to clarify that Havana still needed to do more in areas such as human rights before an end to the 50-year-old trade embargo and a normalization of relations could be considered.

Washington welcomes move but embargo remains for now

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
Clinto welcomed the move but refused to talk of the embargoImage: AP

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that the latest move by Havana was overdue but "a positive sign" and "nevertheless very welcome."

Reopening dialogue with Cuba has been part of the Obama administration's policy of engagement with its adversaries and last year, the White House lifted travel and money transfer restrictions on Cuban-Americans with relatives in the Caribbean nation.

The US president has also said that freeing political prisoners was a precondition for a more rapid improvement in bilateral ties, prompting some observers to suggest that the latest prisoner release could lead to Congress approving pending legislation that would end the ban on US citizens travelling to Cuba.

US remains suspicious of Castro and his agenda

However, despite a shift in position from that of the previous administration, experts believe that Obama has so far only taken modest steps to reverse George W. Bush's policy of increased isolation and tightening of sanctions.

Barack Obama Raul Castro
Obama is expected to keep Castro's Cuba at arm's lengthImage: AP / picture-alliance / dpa / Montage

"Obama has been quite cautious when dealing with Cuba and he has taken a very informal approach," said Maihold. "He has eased some restrictions on travel and visas but he hasn't really committed to anything too serious."

"This prisoner release won't be seen by the US as a turning point in relations. It can be seen as a positive result for Obama's approach but Washington has seen steps like this in the past where prisoners were released and in a few months Cuba was rounding up people from a different group. This will in no way influence the US to lift the embargo."

"Obama's approach has not gone very far to normalize relations with Cuba as yet," said Sweig. "However, this prisoner release could neutralize some of the domestic political opposition to his stance on Cuba and give him and Congress the room to start getting rid of sanctions and accelerate his push for bilateral diplomacy with Cuba."

"Change regarding the embargo in the US is taking place at about the same speed as the reforms in Cuba - which is very slowly. This is about as much as the domestic political structures in both countries can handle right now," she added.

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge