It’s been a good few years for Raul Castro. Since taking over for his ailing brother Fidel in 2006, Raul has profited from international hopes that he represents the softening of the communist regime, even as he has done little to ease political and economic repression inside the country. Despite that failure, the Obama administration has relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba and allowed for the inflow of remittances from Cubans living abroad. Calls for the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations are increasingly heard. Now Raul is set for yet another unearned olive branch ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s planned visit to Cuba later this month.
It speaks to the depth of the desire for political change in Cuba after more than half a century of dictatorship that Raul Castro has been able to cast himself as a reformer – a deceptive image that the popular press has been happy to endorse. Castro for his part has fueled the hype of progress with token reforms intended to mask how little has fundamentally changed in Cuba.
The Cuban government’s supposedly more tolerant treatment of political dissidents is a case in point. In December, in a gesture clearly intended to smooth the way for the pope’s visit, Raul won plaudits for releasing 2,900 political prisoners. But that politically calculated pardon did not extend to hundreds of other prisoners who continue to rot in Cuba’s jails. Among these prisoners is an American, Alan Gross, a Maryland native who was arrested by the Cuban government in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for “crimes against the state.” Gross’s “crime”? Distributing laptops and helping Cuba’s Jewish community to connect to the Internet. Raul Castro has since admitted that Gross was not a spy, as the government had claimed. Nonetheless, he remains in jail.
Raul’s symbolic prisoner release also cannot obscure the fact that the government persists in its brutal crackdown on political dissent. Harassment of and violent attacks on political protestors is routine, and grim is the fate of those who fall into the clutches of the state police. Last May, Cuban dissident Juan Wilfredo Soto died several days after being arrested by Cuban police. According to his family, his death was brought on by beatings he suffered during his detention. Indeed, for many political prisoners, a stint in Cuba’s jail is tantamount to a death sentence. Political activist Wilmar Villar Mendoza was beaten and arrested last November after participating in an anti-government protest, then sentenced to four years in prison for the crime of “resistance.” The 32-year old died this January. Orlando Zapata Tamayo, another political prisoner, went on a hunger strike to protest his prison beatings. He died this February. Raul, not quite living up to his reform persona, blamed his death in the United States.
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