Cuban Government Responds To Activist Hunger Strikes

The Catholic Church recently announced that the Cuban Government will release 52 political prisoners following organized hunger strikes. Host Michel Martin talks to Juan del Aguila, associate professor at Emory University and an expert in Cuban Politics, about the decision.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Cuba has promised that country's Roman Catholic Church that is will release 52 dissidents. That's the largest release in decades of people who are believed to be political prisoners. The decision comes after a meeting on Wednesday between Cuba's president Raul Castro, Catholic officials in Havana and Spain's foreign minister. It also comes after a dissident died while on a hunger strike in February. Another came close to death before ending his hunger strike this week.

We wanted to talk more about what this might mean within Cuba and also the countries like the U.S. So we've called Juan del Aguila. Sorry for that. He specializes in Cuban politics and dissident organizations as an associate professor of political science at Emory University. He happens to be in Miami and he joins us from member station WLRN there. Thank you so much for joining us.

Professor JUAN DEL AGUILA (Political Science, Emory University): Good morning. Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: So, tell us a little bit more about who these people are who have been locked up, why they were arrested.

Prof. DEL AGUILA: Well, this is interesting. They go back to a group that was of '75 that was really arbitrarily and summarily arrested in the spring of '03, now known as the Black Spring of Cuban affairs Cuban dissident and Cuban opposition. And were then, summarily - practically summarily sentenced, some to long prison terms, 25 years, 20 years for essentially speaking their minds, for working as independent journalists, for promoting defense of human rights. And for asking for civil and political rights, not only for themselves, but for all Cubans.

MARTIN: What do you think has sparked...

Prof. DEL AGUILA: After '75...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, I just wanted to...

Prof. DEL AGUILA: ...a couple of dozen have been released over the years for health reasons. Some of them have left the country. But over 50 remained incarcerated, and that is a group that is presumably going to be released over the next few months.

MARTIN: What is your sense of why this, why now? Do you think that the death of Orlando Zapata played a role?

Prof. DEL AGUILA: He played a role. An international campaign quickly developed denouncing and condemning the Cuban government for its human rights, really atrocious human rights practices and widespread abuses.

But the real catalyst, or the second catalyst was the hunger strike by Guillermo Farinas who ended it yesterday after 135 days. I hope that - a strike, incidentally, that brought him to the brink of death several times, a fate that he was willingly contemplating and said that he would be he would sacrifice himself in order to see his comrades and his fellow Cubans released from unjust incarceration.

MARTIN: But what is the sense of why, though. I mean, I understand the action itself. But what does it tell you, the fact that Cuba's response to this, or evidently has responded to this, is there a sense that the political leadership cares about international opinion? I mean, do they care about international opinion?

Prof. DEL AGUILA: Yes, they do.

MARTIN: Or do they hope there's some...

Prof. DEL AGUILA: Yes, they do, especially from somewhat friendly countries like Spain and others in Europe. This is all driven, by this I mean the stunning reversal of its own policy on the part of the Cuban government by the fact that Spain is leading the charge in Europe to abolish or to end what is known as the common position on Cuba by the European Union.

That common position is subject to the democratic clause which stipulates that no European country can have a full panoply of relations, normal relations with Cuba, as long as human rights are disrespected and a general statement about a commitment to democracy.

That second round of that discussion will come up in September. And Spain and others have been pushing the Cuban government to quote, unquote, "make some meaningful gestures," to show some goodwill. And one way the Cuban government decided to follow that advice was to play the so-called political prisoner card by releasing people who were unjustly incarcerated to begin with.

MARTIN: Do you think this foretells any broader shift in the attitude of the Cuban governor? Or do you think it is, as you described, as was described, a gesture and only that?

Prof. DEL AGUILA: That's exactly what it is. I don't think that there has been no statements, no evidence and certainly another (unintelligible) that this will be followed by a broader lifting of other fundamental prohibitions on civil and political freedoms.

So I think that is, strictly speaking, in keeping with the view that this will help Spain make a stronger case on behalf of ending the common position in September.

That is part of the reason, for example, as to why these people, these men - I think they're mostly men - are being released over time. Which means that if the Cuban government, for example, were to read the situation in Europe as not really moving in the right direction, it is entirely rational and perhaps even to be expected that they will not comply with the promises they made and hold some prisoners back.

MARTIN: Okay. All right, we have to leave it there for now. Juan Del Aguila specializes in Cuban politics and dissident organizations. He's an associate professor of political science at Emory University, and we caught up with him in Miami. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. DEL AGUILA: Thank you.

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