Premature thanks in Cuba
The myth of Raul the Reformer
By Daniel Allott
The Washington Times
4:21 p.m., Wednesday, November 24, 2010
It has been more than four years since Raul Castro assumed the duties of
the presidency of Cuba and more than 2 1/2 years since he officially
took over for his older brother, Fidel.
In that time, words like "pragmatic," "practical" and "reformer" have
often been attached to Raul as a way of contrasting his governing
philosophy with his brother's and to signal that major political and
economic reforms may be imminent.
But a sober analysis suggests that meaningful change has not occurred.
In fact, given the conclusions of several reports on human rights in
Cuba, and based on our conversations with dozens of Cuba experts and
Cubans both inside and outside Cuba, it is clear that the regime's
tyranny is as entrenched as ever.
The Raul-as-reformer narrative began when he announced modest economic
changes early in his reign. These included privatizing some farmland,
denationalizing small beauty parlors and taxi-driving enterprises and
loosening restrictions on the use of cell phones and other electronics.
Then, in July, the Cuban government announced that it would release the
remaining 52 political prisoners it had imprisoned during the "Black
Spring," a mass arrest of nonviolent activists in March 2003. As of Nov.
12, 39 prisoners had been released and exiled to Spain.
In September, the Cuban labor federation announced a government plan to
fire more than 500,000 state employees between October and March. It
would mark the biggest shift of jobs from the public to the private
sector in nearly 50 years.
All of this has convinced many of the major players in Cuba's
relationship with the outside world that Raul is someone they can work with.
Even before the recent changes, President Obama talked about forging "a
new beginning" with Cuba. After a July meeting with Raul in Havana,
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos proclaimed the opening
of "a new phase in Cuba" and insisted "there is no longer any reason to
maintain the [European Union's] Common Position on Cuba," which calls
for normalizing relations with the regime once progress is made on human
rights and democracy issues.
Even the beleaguered Cuban Catholic Church – whose leaders were given
the cold shoulder by Fidel, who preferred to negotiate directly with the
Vatican on church matters – sees an opening. Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega
y Alamino, Archbishop of Havana, announced a "magnificent beginning" to
a new relationship with the regime after talks with Raul last spring.
Journalists, too, see change they can believe in with Raul. The prisoner
releases promptedNewsweek's Patrick Symmes to write, "A half century of
repression [in Cuba] appears to be ending."
Such claims are contradicted by the findings of numerous human rights
groups. In a November 2009 study titled "New Castro, Same Cuba:
Political Prisoners in the Post-Fidel Era," Human Rights Watch
documented more than 40 cases of Cubans imprisoned for "dangerousness"
under a Cuban law that allows authorities to imprison persons they
suspect might commit a crime in the future.
Scores of other Cubans have been sentenced under Raul for violating laws
that criminalize free expression and association. Cubans have been
imprisoned for failing to attend government rallies, for not belonging
to official party organizations and even for being unemployed.
Non-Cubans are not immune to such treatment. One of this piece's
authors, Jordan Allott, was detained briefly and interrogated by Cuban
police during a trip across Cuba in 2009 merely for asking a couple of
Cubans to talk about the Cuban Revolution on a street in Camaguey.
American contractor Alan Gross has been imprisoned in Cuba for nearly a
year. He is accused of trying to provide unauthorized satellite Internet
connections to Cuba's tiny Jewish community.
In its report, Human Rights Watch concluded that rather than dismantle
Fidel's "system of abusive laws and institutions," Raul "has kept it
firmly in place and fully active."
Freedom House's 2010 Freedom in the World survey again designated Cuba
as the sole "not free" country in the Americas. It also placed Cuba
among its "worst of the worst" countries, which kept it on the shortlist
of "the world's most repressive regimes."
In an October 2009 report, the U.S. State Department's Bureau of
Democracy, Human Rights and Labor rebuked Cuba for its lack of religious
freedom. "The Government continued to exert control over all aspects of
societal life, including religious expression," the report stated.
Violations of religious freedom included efforts to control and monitor
religious activities and fines against unregistered religious groups.
The Cuban government continues to be one of the few in the world that
prohibit the International Committee of the Red Cross access to their
prisons. The condition of those prisons was highlighted in February with
the hunger-strike death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo. Zapata, imprisoned for
nonviolent political activism, undertook the strike to protest prison
conditions. The international outcry after his death was partially
responsible for prompting the regime to agree to release prisoners
willing to be exiled.
The continued mistreatment of nonviolent political activists comes as no
surprise to those who remember Raul as the official who oversaw
thousands of executions of political prisoners in the early years of the
As with most tyrants, the Castros are skilled at sending mixed signals
about their intentions. It was months into the revolution before many
democrats realized that Fidel's repeated declarations that his
revolution was informed not by Marxism but by democratic and Christian
principles were lies.
Last year, the Cuban government invited Manfred Novak, the United
Nations' special investigator on torture, to inspect Cuba's prisons. The
invitation drew praise from the international community. But the
government rescinded the invitation last month, stating that an outside
investigation was not needed.
In spring, Raul was lauded for agreeing to end persecution of the Ladies
in White, a group of wives, mothers and other female relatives of Cuban
political prisoners who were being harassed, beaten and prevented by
government security agents from making their weekly peaceful protests.
But the government resumed its harassment in August. It deployed large
mobs to intimidate Reina Luisa Tamayo, mother of deceased hunger striker
Zapata, preventing her from marching and attending Mass.
Even the prisoner releases are less than they appear. The Cuban
government pledged to release all its political prisoners without any
conditions by Nov. 7. But that deadline has passed, and 13 prisoners who
refuse to be exiled from the island remain incarcerated.
Last month, Berta Soler of the Ladies in White accused the government of
"applying psychological pressure to those remaining in prison because
they want to see them out of the country."
The prisoner releases and economic changes are not meaningful and
lasting steps toward reform. Instead, they are short-term measures
designed to extract economic concessions from the United States and Europe.
As Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy
at the University of Miami, put
it to us in an interview, "It's wrong to
think that [Cuba is] now on this one-way road toward openness and
democracy. That's not the case at all. Cuba needs something. What the
regime is hoping for is to get some economic help."
Cuba's economy is in abysmal shape. Food production has slowed, and
tourism, foreign remittances and subsidies from Venezuela have plunged
with the global economy.
The Cuban government is laying off 500,000 workers not because it wants
to move toward a free-market capitalist system. It is doing so because
it can no longer afford to pay those workers' monthly $20 wages.
Similarly, the regime is exiling some of its political prisoners not
because it suddenly has seen the light on human rights and democracy.
Rather, it's exiling them because it's desperate for America and the EU
to relax economic sanctions, which both have made conditional
principally on the release of political prisoners.
The Castro brothers are experts at easing their grip on Cuba just enough
and just long enough to get what they want. On many occasions throughout
the Castro regime's 51 years, it has freed or exiled political prisoners
or made other "reforms" only to reverse course once it got what it needed.
Ms. Kaufman Purcell says, "The way [authoritarian regimes] often work is
that when things get bad, when there's a lot of external pressure, what
happens is that they release [prisoners], and at some point they get new
Armando Valladares, a Cuban-born former political prisoner and former
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, told us,
"The liberation of groups of political prisoners is a frequent practice
in Cuba. It has happened many times for the revolution's interests. [The
prisoner releases] absolutely should not be interpreted … as a change
in the tyranny's repressive structure."
After foreign aid from the Soviet Union was cut off with the fall of
communism in the early 1990s, the Cuban government loosened controls on
private enterprise, allowing 200,000 workers to earn money as street
vendors and taxi drivers. But as soon as the economy recovered, many of
the new businesses were shut down.
When the government wanted some good publicity ahead of Pope John Paul
II's visit in 1998, it released 300 political prisoners. As soon as the
press attention subsided, the prisons were filled again with political
If fundamental political and economic reforms are to be made in Cuba,
the government's repressive legal system and security apparatus must be
dismantled. That didn't happen for more than four decades under Fidel.
And it's not happening under Raul.
Daniel Allott is senior writer at American Values and a Washington
fellow at the National Review Institute. He also is associate producer
of "Oscar's Cuba," a documentary film about Cuban prisoner of conscience
Dr. Oscar Biscet. Jordan Allott is director and executive producer of