In recent days, expectation has grown that the Cuban government could be contemplating the possibility of freeing the more than 700 prisoners they jailed after the July 11, 2021 protests. Several factors feed this speculation that – for now – can’t be confirmed or denied.
The first – and doubtless the most important – event giving rise to these speculations was the recent visit to Havana of Cardinal Beniamino Stella, as Pope Francis’ special envoy. The prelate remained in Cuba for two weeks, touring the island in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit. Cardinal Stella was received by Cuban president and dictator Miguel Diaz-Canel and gave a talk at the University of Havana.
At the University, he was approached by journalists. He responded to their questions about the prisoners with the words: “It’s important that the youth, who at one moment manifested their thinking in the way we know, can return home.” He added that this was also the thinking of the Pope. “The Church desires, seeks, has manifested this objective… the Pope greatly desires that there be a positive response, however it’s termed: amnesty, clemency, the words can also be secondary.”
Foreign correspondents based in Cuba, such as the Spanish newspaper El Pais, recalled that both Fidel and Raul Castro typically freed a good number of prisoners on the occasions of Papal visits – of Pope Francis in 2015; Pope Benedict XVI in 2011; Pope John Paul II in 1998. In the course of the last 50 years, similar releases marked the visit of other guests of such stature. Stella isn’t a Pope, but he’s the Pope’s envoy, and in addition was the Apostolic Nuncio in Cuba during the visit of Pope John Paul II. Hopes were high in the days following his visit; for the moment, however, nothing has happened. The suspense persists.
A second reason for optimism resides in recent events in Nicaragua. On February 9, the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo released over 200 political prisoners. who were immediately sent into exile in the United States, with the exception of the Matagalpa bishop. The latter declined exile and has now received a prison sentence of over 26 years.
Many of the Nicaraguan victims had been in prison for months or years in deplorable conditions. The liberation of this contingent of men and women, youth and elders, may or may not have constituted a wink to Washington on the part of the Nicaraguan regime, at a moment when Nicaragua’s economy is going backwards, their outside reserves are shrinking, emigration is increasing, and without the United States scarce possibilities for recovery exist.
The authorities deny any quid pro quo agreement with Washington, but admit that [Rosario Murillo] the vice president and Ortega’s wife, negotiated the prisoners’ departure from Washington with the US embassy. For their part, Washington considered the release of the political prisoners as the result of concerted diplomacy between the two countries, as [Nicaraguan Foreign Minister] Moncada and [US Secretary of State] Blinken both stated.
Although Managua and Havana don’t maintain the same close relations they had in the 80s, their ties are still intense. Evidence of this is the Nicaraguan dictatorship’s policy of allowing hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles or migrants open transit through their territory without a visa, a measure that’s been in place for over a year now. It’s the only country in Latin America that offers that facility.
For all these reasons, it’s possible to speculate that Ortega’s gesture could have been not only approved or even backed by Cuba, but also could be a premonitory signal of things to come. Wishful thinking? Maybe, but it wouldn’t be the first example of coordination between the two dictatorships, in part for the constant complications in the subsidy that the third dictatorship – that of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela – allots each one.
That leads us to the third motive for speculation about the case of the political prisoners in Cuba. Suspicions exist in some circles of the US Democratic Party, and possibly in some sectors of the Mexican government, that President Joe Biden could modify his posture towards the island. It’s public knowledge that the island’s economic and social situation is going through the worst moment in its history, more serious even than the so-called “special period” of the nineties. Over 260,000 Cubans left for the United States in 2022, and with the so called Nietos Law, thousands are expected to obtain Spanish citizenship.
Food, medicine, electricity, gasoline, nearly everything, has scarcened. The sugar harvest, a good indicator of what Cuba is producing to sell outside the country in order to buy what it consumes, totaled 420,000 tons in 2021-22, the worst ever according to what historian Carmelo Mesa Lago told El Pais. The value of all the country’s exports barely reached two thirds the level in – 1989!
The only way out of this is with the United States. There are reasons to think that President Biden has already resigned himself to the fact that his party, and he himself if he runs for reelection, won’t win in Florida anytime in the near future. Thus, it’s senseless to continue basing policy towards Cuba on the desires and prejudices of the Cuban-American community in Miami, or even on the veto of powerful Democratic senators such as Bob Menendez. From there, as Andres Oppenheimer suggests, Washington is contemplating a new tie with Havana, possibly like that with Mexico in matters of migration. All the sanctions reimposed by Donald Trump would be softened, they’d advance towards removing those that Barack Obama left, and only the embargo would remain, since only Congress can repeal that, but with lax enforcement.
For all this to succeed, Diaz-Canel and Raul Castro know they can’t continue holding over 700 demonstrators from July 11, 2021, with sentences of up to 30 years. Since the beginning of the revolution, it gives Cubans hives to exchange prisoners for economic measures, and they refuse to negotiate their political or justice system. However, the water is now reaching their necks. In the end, like Ortega in Nicaragua, they can use the political prisoners as bargaining chips, turning them over to Pope Francis, in hopes of a reaction from Biden. It wouldn’t be the first time that something of this nature has happened in the long and stormy history of relations between Cuba and the United States.
Originally published in Jorge Castañeda’s blog.