To Free the Prisoners, A First Step
After seven difficult years, the just demands of the Ladies in White appear to be closer to a solution. With the mediation of the Catholic Church it seems they could begin moving inmates to prisons closer to their places of residence and prisoner patients to various hospitals, a move that will have to be complemented with the release, immediate or gradual, of all detained for political reasons, of which 55 are recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. If realized, this operation, as well as closing the path for violent solutions, would open the possibility of other changes that will happen in the danger zone, or using the language of football, in injury time, as the long period that the Government has to undertake changes, is exhausted.
In a little reflection I wrote in early May entitled “Confrontation, a Strategy?” I stated in one paragraph: Despite government resistance, the relevance of civil liberties requires, eventually, a change from internal politics and from that to a projecting external relations based on dialogue as a guiding principle and ongoing strategy. Then, we will start by releasing all political prisoners, ratifying human rights covenants, developing the legislation to implement these covenants and opening a national debate on issues that affect us, so that Cubans can participate as subjects in the destiny of their nation. It is simply a timing issue.
This year opened with a chain of events: a Spanish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) banned from entering Cuban territory; the death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo; the replacement of several government figures; information about the growing corruption; the poorest sugar harvest of the past 100 years; international condemnation of the Cuban government repression, especially used against the Ladies in White; and the hunger strike of the opponent Guillermo Fariñas. All of this, joined to the exhaustion of the model, the stagnation of the nation, citizen discontent, increased civic demonstrations and international isolation, make a picture that has forced the government to take into consideration what they had hitherto refused to consider.
A characteristic of closed systems is to try to stop time, which is manifested in the lack of projects. As the Government has exercised power in the absence of other political forces, it was able to determine what measures to apply, when to enter and how far to go. However, this government’s decision to put on its agenda the issue of political prisoners proves the failure caused both by the violation of human rights within the country as well as the confrontation in foreign affairs. A result can be synthesized from Lenin’s thesis about the Social Revolution: The below are not wanted, those above can not and do not allow outsiders. In this context, the choice of the topic of political prisoners is evidence that the Government is not in a position to decide what should be the starting point.
Human rights are the first among the many causes of the current crisis, so any attempt at a solution has to start at that point, and within it, by the release of political prisoners. In that sense you can not confuse the release of political prisoners, which is an effect of the systematic violation of human rights, with the solution of the crisis, but their release can only be a starting point to address changes that the country demands. It is precisely the continuing failures of the government and its attempts to get away with partial solutions which prove the impossibility of success unless changes are undertaken in all elements of the system, i.e., structural changes, the starting point of which, again, is human rights.
For the foregoing reasons the imminent release constitutes a shift in domestic policy that will impact battered international relations and could open the doors of international collaboration. The elimination of the common position of the European Union, the accession of Cuba to the Cotonou Agreement, access to funding sources and the normalization of relations with the United States, would be the order of the day, but above all steps in favor of Cubans themselves, victims of the policy of confrontation. However, do not forget that Cuba received more aid than all of Latin America combined and that it was squandered by the subjectivity and the infeasibility of the model. Therefore, external assistance, though necessary, is insufficient if not accompanied by changes to the interior.
If the Cuban government has the will to release the political prisoners, it would be like going back to 1968, when the revolutionary offensive to liquidate the remnants of the economic independence of citizens gave the coup de grace to Cuban civil society. For this reason, if the release of prisoners, which may be positive, is not accompanied by the implementation and respect for the rights and freedoms, and a legal basis for citizen participation in the affairs of the nation, and without changing existing legislation which threatens imprisonment of dissenters, the Government would be totally free to return to jail their opponents for the same reasons. Furthermore, the same government, strengthened by international cooperation would have the ability to use those resources for updating the model that led the country into deep crisis in which it finds itself, in the first place.
The absorption of social spontaneity by the State to cancel the citizen participation that sustains and nurtures human destinies, leads in a direction opposite to social progress. Both civil society and the state are components of a single subject. What is at issue is to define the functions assigned to each. Civil society in Cuba — legally established as a result of the Pact of Zanjón in 1878 — is a forum for interchange and coexistence of different interests, and that autonomy is a valuable tool for citizen participation. When the state has power over civil society, citizens are prevented from being political subjects, as the monopoly of this generates binding rules that allow the state to many anyone who questions its validity an enemy of the state. Therefore, alongside the communists attempt to update their model, there must also be the possibility for other stakeholders to propose alternative models. Hence the importance of fighting for the repeal of laws criminalizing independent citizen political participation.
Considerations of how to balance the needs, interests and contradictions, and the release of political prisoners could lead to other developments of great significance to the Cuban nation. It all depends, first, on the will of the government; and second on the ability of alternative forces in the rebirth of civil society and civic awareness training for Cubans and international support received from outside.
In Cuba, as has happened everywhere at different times throughout history, there will be changes. The opportunity now is that the policy of confrontation used yesterday to conserve power, today is definitely dead. Hence the shift of the policy towards a more sensible one must be accompanied with the restoration of broken bridges, which begins with the ratification of human rights conventions signed by the Government of Cuba in 2008. It is from this that freedom of expression and alternative, independent, citizen and participatory journalism can flourish, playing a valuable role in influencing the direction of change, since among the many challenges, the generation of public opinion figures prominently.