Perez: The Facade of a Freer Cuba

by Sarah Perez | 9/16/15 6:00pm

With all eyes trained on Pope Francis’ arrival in Washington, D.C., next Tuesday, many news outlets have dedicated a significant amount of coverage to preparations for the special guest. The visit will begin that afternoon, when President Barack Obama will greet the leader of the Roman Catholic Church at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. After paying his respects at the White House the next morning, Pope Francis will embark on a two-week-long journey across the United States. While the Holy Father’s visit is an occasion for celebration, we should be weary of the inevitable commotion that will accompany it. The truth is that the U.S. is not the only stop on the papal itinerary. Instead, we should be paying more attention to where Pope Francis will be spending his days prior to setting foot on American soil.

At 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 19, Pope Francis will arrive at Jose Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba. As a so-called “gesture of goodwill” to the Holy Father, the Castro regime has agreed to release 3,522 prisoners leading up to his three-day stay on the island. While this may seem like a step in the right direction with regard to the dictatorship’s human rights record, we should not be so easy to impress. Now more than ever, the Castro brothers’ political machinations should be subject to utmost scrutiny. The release of more than 3,000 prisoners should be taken for what it truly is — a strategic maneuver to maintain the façade of a freer Cuba.

There is no dearth of prisoners on the island. In many cases, its jails are filled to capacity. Cuba’s people are often imprisoned at the whim of an oppressive government. Until a few years ago, someone who wanted to provide internet to Cubans could very well have shared a cell with a rapist or murderer. Apparently, free market enterprise continues to be a major thorn in the side of the regime. Despite the fanfare and photo-ops surrounding the regime’s “benevolent” act, 3,522 prisoners is little more than a drop in the bucket for the dictatorship.

Who the regime has decided to release is also little cause for celebration. According to a Sept. 11 article in The New York Times, the government pardoned “a mix of women, inmates younger than 20 with no prior offenses, those older than 60, prisoners with illnesses, some foreigners whose countries have agreed to repatriate them and others whose terms are coming to an end.” Not included in this list is a group just as deserving of their freedom — political prisoners. Instead, those accused of crimes against the state will continue to suffer at the hands of the dictatorship. For them, Pope Francis’ visit will provide little, if any, reprieve.

Such a realization, however, should not really come as a surprise to anyone. As President Obama has doggedly promoted a détente with the island, Cuban officials have done next to nothing to keep up their end of the bargain. Time and time again, we have failed to hold them accountable. This past Monday, Cuban authorities detained over 50 people peacefully protesting the regime’s long list of political prisoners. Most of those incarcerated were members of the prominent dissident group, Ladies in White. Likewise, Josefina Vidal, the head of the Cuban commission charged with restoring diplomatic relations with the United States, recently asserted that “Cuba will do absolutely nothing, will not move one millimeter its position to try to respond to people that are not looking out for our nation’s best interests.” Such unwillingness to compromise hearkens back to something that our nation’s leaders seem unable to comprehend — the fate of anyone who opposes the regime seems bleaker than ever.

When all is said and done, Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba will be a monumental occasion for celebration, and rightfully so. The Cuban regime’s release of a select few prisoners, on the other hand, is unworthy of such commemoration. It should neither be hailed as a victory for human rights, nor go down in history books as a milestone in reestablishing diplomatic relations. We should not be deluded into praising such falseness as tangible progress. Our nation’s leaders must instead hold Cuba’s leaders accountable, even if it means detouring from a policy of détente. Until then, a truly free Cuba will remain entirely outside the realm of possibility. And that too, is nothing to celebrate.