Amid rumors of imminent and far-reaching political change in Cuba, the nascent thaw in US-Cuban relations continues apace. On January 21, the government of Raúl Castro will join that of US President Barack Obama at the negotiating table, with talks set to establish the finer points about the normalization of relations between the two.
Since December 17, when both leaders simultaneously announced the reopening of diplomatic relations, the Caribbean island and its northern neighbor have been moving in diplomatic tandem. However, despite optimism over the positive ramifications of deepening Washington-Havana ties for Cuban citizens, opposition groups within Cuba have highlighted several instances of ongoing repression.
Dissidents Still Jailed
Opposition group the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) alleged that 29 of those freed last week as part of a diplomatic deal, all of them activists within the organization, were threatened with violence by state authorities. All 29 remain subject to a legal status which allows the government to imprison them again without a judicial hearing if they return to political activity. In a statement broadcast on Thursday January 8, the UNPACU argued that the Cuban authorities were trying to avoid making substantive concessions by relying on the “small print,” insisting that those released had been freed from jail but not from state repression.
“It’s just as important, or even more so than the regime’s promises to free the 54 political prisoners, that it promises to put an end to the habit of jailing those who dissent, as well as every kind of repression for political ends. These injustices won’t end as long as we don’t have genuine independence in Cuba from state power,” said José Daniel Ferrer, founder and leader of UNPACU.
The same organization labelled the conditional freeing of the 36 people as risible, given that, at that point, at least 64 more remained in jail, 23 of them UNPACU activists. According to their estimates, in 2014 arbitrary detentions on the island for political reasons reached 8,900, 400 of which took place in December alone.
Political Arrests Continue
Some of the latest arrests took place on December 30, when Cuban artist Tania Bruguera attempted to carry out an artistic performance in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, which consisted in setting up a microphone so that attendees could “share their hopes” for the future of Cuba.
The Cuban National Council for Decorative Arts (CNAP), however, described the act as “unacceptable,” and Bruguero’s efforts to proceed regardless resulted in her arrest, alongside four other activists and journalists.
Joisy García, founder of Cuba’s Anarcho-Capitalist Club, told the PanAm Post that he was imprisoned for 48 hours following the event for attempting to participate. “The Cuban government would rather face the political cost of censorship than permit the free expression of its people with a microphone,” he said.
After having been arrested three times in three days, during and after the event, Bruguera was forbidden to leave Cuba for the next three months, as charges of resisting arrest and creating a disturbance in public order were brought against her, according to representatives of the #YoTambienExijo (#IAlsoDemand) movement.
The government-backed Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) declared that Bruguera had an “obvious political intention,” and that the artist was seeking nothing more than the “temporary limelight.” On January 1, the artist renounced the UNEAC and a returned a reward previously given to her by the Cuban government.
“The re-establishment of relations might make us think that Cuba’s going to become more free. This act proves that this still isn’t the case,” Bruguera told local news outlet Milenio.
US-Cuban Economic Interests Align
For José Azel, a senior researcher at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, the changes visible in Cuban politics aren’t due to a process of democratic restructuring. Havana is instead motivated, he argues, by its keen need for the commercial credit which its fourth biggest trade parter, the United states, can provide.
“With the fall of petroleum prices that’s affecting Venezuela and Russia, Cuba has to seek alternatives, but it has a long history in the Club of Paris of not paying its debts. As a result, it’s seeking credit from its alliance with the United States, from which it’s currently buying foodstuffs and medicines in cash,” Azel explained to the PanAm Post.
On Thursday 8, 28 US agricultural and foodstuffs organizations joined together to form the US Agriculture Coalition for Cuba (USACC), with the objective of lifting of Washington’s embargo on the island, described by the companies as a “self-imposed obstacle” to business.
“Relaxing funding restrictions on agricultural trade with Cuba would make farmers more competitive in this market,” said the president of the American Agricultural Federation, Bob Stallman, in a press conference.
Stallman explained that although the US agricultural sector can currently export products to Cuba, government restrictions put national foodstuffs at a disadvantage compared to those of other countries.
The political thaw represents an opportunity for the US private sector. US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, present at the unveiling of the new coalition, noted that Cuba imports some 80 percent of its agricultural products, and holds a sectoral market worth US$1.7 billion.
The initiative comes less than a month after Obama announced his intention to move forward with the lifting of the economic embargo imposed on the Caribbean nation in 1962.
After a US State Department briefing on Tuesday January 6, in which it revealed that Havana would free 53 imprisoned activists, 36 prisoners were freed in the following days. The remainder followed on Monday, January 12.