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Castro’s Prisoner Amnesty Is Bait and Switch

By: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo - @OLPL - Sep 18, 2015, 8:52 am
As long as Cuban laws remain unchanged, the Castro brothers will continue to use political prisoners as foreign-policy leverage.
As long as Cuban laws remain unchanged, the Castro brothers will continue to use political prisoners as foreign-policy leverage. (Mdzol)

EspañolFrom September 19 to 22, the Catholic Pope will visit Cuba for the third time, and as is customary, the Castro regime has had a sudden merciful change of heart.

This time, Cuban jails have released 3,522 prisoners. That’s 500 prisoners more than in March 2012, when Benedict XVI came to the island, and 3,000 more than those released thanks to John Paul II’s visit in January 1998. In each case, the whole world celebrated the gesture as if it were a human-rights victory.

Similarly, General Raúl Castro freed 53 political prisoners as a “gift” to Barack Obama for his announcement to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba on December 17, 2014. Some of them, like Afro-Cuban activist Sonia Garro and her husband Ramón Alejandro Muñoz, had been behind bars for nearly three years, without a trial.

In other words, the state kidnapped them during a perverse and hypocritical wave of repression, while, ironically, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated mass on the island. But never mind that. Everyone applauded Castros’s “gesture of good will” in light of the diplomatic transition and the opening of Cuba’s Marxist markets for Uncle Sam.

Over the past two decades, Cuban prisons have held between 50,000 and 60,000 inmates, producing an alarmingly high ratio of 500 prisoners for every 100,000 residents. However, that disheartening figure is the least of it.

The worst part is that the repressive and backward Cuban laws remain untouched and unquestioned. The death penalty, crimes of contempt against the commander in chief, censorship laws that criminalize dissent as “the enemy’s propaganda,” and punishments for “pre-crime” reminiscent of Italian fascism are all still on the books.

Meanwhile, the state’s paramilitary groups ensure — with complete disregard for the penal code — that the threat of imprisonment reaches every Cuban citizen: beggars, ministers, former agents, and exiles alike.

This means that if there were no political prisoners in Cuba, the regime would have to invent them. Otherwise, the dictatorship would have no leverage to negotiate with the European Union, the United States, and, of course, God’s representative on Earth.

This brutal, tyrannical regime has been in power for so long, happily executing thousands and forcing nearly one-fifth of its population to leave, that it now must somehow manufacture political prisoners. That’s why the regime puts on a show whenever it cracks down on a peaceful demonstration in Cuban streets.

These periodic protests and arrests pose no threat to the Castro brothers’ reign. Instead, officials turn it all into a convenient tool to manipulate the international agenda, depending on whether they want to look like the good cop or the bad cop.

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As long as there is no separation of powers in Cuba, the slightest tolerance for freedom of expression or association, or a civil society independent of the corporate-military elite; as long as the Constitution does not allow for questioning why socialism should be the eternal “irrevocable” model of the country, then, it really doesn’t make a difference whether five or 50,000 prisoners are released.

We are not dealing with some sort of amnesty brought on by social pressures. It more resembles a kind of royal pardon that takes us all by surprise: a gesture as oppressive as the thumbs-up or thumbs-down of a Roman emperor in a bloody coliseum.

Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White, astutely summed it up when she said: “the Cuban government is clever; it won’t be the first time … that they will spend months imprisoning people for petty crimes, only to inflate the figures of those released.”

I could not be happier for my fellow countrymen who are now out of jail. However, it makes me sad that millions of Cubans don’t yet understand that not a single one of us has been truly freed, and that the world continues to applaud the bounds of our curtailed liberty.

Translated by Vanessa Arita.

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo is a Cuban writer and photographer, a visiting fellow of the International Writers Project, and an adjunct professor at Brown University. Follow @OLPL and his blog Lunes de Post-Revolución.