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Pardons, Politics, and the Papal Visit to Cuba

By Lawrence Gutman

Last Friday, Cuba’s Council of State announced the release of 3,522 prisoners in anticipation of Pope Francis’ visit to the island this Sept. 19-22. Those scheduled to be freed include low-level offenders, minors, senior citizens, inmates in poor healthand foreigners awaiting repatriation to their countries of origin. The announcement, which appeared over Raúl Castro’s signature in Granma, a state-run newspaper, followed Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s request to issue pardons as a humanitarian gesture to the visiting pontiff. Cuba’s Conference of Catholic Bishops praised the decision, and affirmed the suspended sentences will be “cause for happiness and spiritual relief for the prisoners and their families.”

Mass pardons are hardly unique in the recent history of papal delegations to Cuba. In 1998, Fidel Castro suspended the sentences of 299 prisoners before Pope John Paul II’s visit. Raúl Castro increased the number sharply by releasing 2,900 inmates prior to Pope Benedict’s arrival in 2012.

Yet there are limits to which inmates the government release on humanitarian grounds. As with the pardons of 1998 and 2012, none of the prisoners being released en masse in 2015 are dissidents. Furthermore, many were already scheduled for release in the coming year. According to the Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, Cuba’s political prisoners will remain incarcerated for the duration of Pope Francis’ stay.

It is therefore unsurprising that observers and foes of the Cuban government dismissed the Council of State’s announcement last week as little more than a public relations tactic. Indeed, the freeing of over 3,000 inmates as a gesture to Pope Francis drew significant coverage in the international press. Yet with no political prisoners actually walking out of jail during the papal visit, foreign journalists in Cuba this week will not be conducting exit interviews and coverage of dissident demands will likely be overshadowed by the Pope’s itinerary. Ultimately, the critics argue, the government’s selective release of prisoners only serves to burnish Havana’s humanitarian credentials, align the Cuban Revolution with the first Latin American pontiff and most popular pope in the region’s modern history, and preserve the political status quo.

Not to mention that the releases may also deflect attention from government efforts this week to tamp down on calls for reform. Within several days of the announcement of mass pardons, Cuban police detained about 50 members of a Catholic dissident group. If coverage of these detentions is drowned out by other stories in the coming week, a Cuban government on the cusp of political and economic re-integration with the U.S. will have won a significant messaging victory.

The Cuban state may well win that victory, but it will likely be a Pyrrhic one. In fact, the papal visit that inspired this year’s pardons is already registering very differently than the visits of Pope John Paul in 1998 or Pope Benedict in 2012. With the restoration of U.S.-Cuban diplomacy in 2014 and the resumption of bilateral trade in the near to medium term, Havana is navigating uncharted waters that are already challenging the norms of Cuban domestic politics. The most recent prisoner release may benefit the Cuban government in this week’s news coverage, but the forces underlying Pope Francis’ itinerary in Cuba, Washington, and at the UN General Assembly over the next few weeks are unlikely to leave the Cuban political system unchanged.

The upper echelons of the Cuban state may not have changed significantly since Pope Benedict’s visit in 2012, but the context in which they operate at home and abroad has shifted dramatically in the last nine months. The government released 53 dissidents this year as a pre-condition for restoring ties with the U.S., and a new round of detentions is unlikely to advance the state ’s cause of restored trade as bilateral talks proceed.

Thanks in large measure to the bravery and resourcefulness of a new generation of political actors, the demands of dissidents are now on the table as never before, and calls for expanded political, social, and economic rights are likely to grow as engagement across the Florida Straits deepens and accelerates. The appearance of two dissidents on municipal ballots last April may not be a game changer for near-term electoral reform, but it does mark the crossing of a political red line that’s been in place for decades. More recently, the arrest and sentencing of opposition leader Leopoldo López in Venezuela suggests that Cuba and its key regional partner may be at odds over the rights agenda in the near term.

Raúl Castro and the Cuban leadership have expressed a level of admiration for the current pope not seen in the history of relations between Cuba and the Vatican since the 1959 Revolution. The possibility of a private meeting between Pope Francis and Fidel Castro is currently being explored. It would be surprising if the visiting pontiff, a key player in brokering the restoration of U.S.-Cuban diplomacy, did not seize the moment to advocate for expanded rights on the island.

It is less surprising, however, that the Cuban government has taken steps to burnish its reputation and limit public criticism during an event of such global significance and attention. The prisoner release announced last week underscores that reality. But the game is changing, and it stands to reason that some of the old rules governing the relationship between Cuban citizens and their government may not remain on the books for much longer.

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Lawrence Gutman has conducted research on governance and foreign investment in Cuba as a Fulbright Hays Fellow and Tinker Foundation Fellow. He holds an M.A. in Latin American history from the University of Texas at Austin, and is based in New York. He tweets @lawrencegutman.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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