Changes In Cuba: Prisoner Release, Castro's Role

Read Julia Sweig's Piece For Council On Foreign Relations, "A Reform Movement In Cuba?"

The Cuban government has promised to release 52 political prisoners, some of whom have already flown to Spain. In light of that move, and recent sightings of a healthier-looking Fidel Castro, Julia Sweig, author of Cuba, predicts what may lie ahead in U.S.-Cuba relations.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, two more political prisoners flew from Cuba to Spain today, where they joined seven other dissidents released earlier this week. The Cuban foreign minister told journalists yesterday all those who are political prisoners will be released from jail. The release comes as Congress considers legislation to lift the travel ban, and the Obama administration looks at measures to promote more contact.

And Cuba's former leader Fidel Castro appeared on state television there this week. He's not been seen in public since intestinal surgery in 2006, and looked better than most expected.

Amid these developments, we turn to Julia Sweig, director of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

And we want to hear from you. Does the release of political prisoners represent the beginning of real change in Cuba? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Julia Sweig, the author of "Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know." She joins us today from the CFR studios here in Washington. Nice to have you with us again.

Ms. JULIA SWEIG (Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Author): Great to be back, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And what does the release of these political prisoners represent?

Ms. SWEIG: Well, I see this in several dimensions. Number one, it represents Raul Castro's desire to take a very thorny, very controversial and unappealing issue off the table for international purposes and domestic purposes. It represents also, importantly, the release of political prisoners for the prisoners themselves and for their families, an end to a very difficult period. And it represents a very interesting moment in diplomacy with respect to the role of the Vatican, the Cuban Catholic Church, the European Union, the government of Spain and the Cuban government working together to make this happen.

CONAN: Fifty-two. That's not the number that some human rights activists would use.

Ms. SWEIG: The 52 is the remaining number from 75 that were imprisoned in 19 - in 2003, excuse me. There are additional political prisoners, the numbers vary from a bit over 100, 150 Cuban human rights groups, to several hundred more, according to outsiders. What I gather - Foreign Minister Moratinos of Spain announced yesterday was that in addition to the 52, all political prisoners will also be released, once they figure out who that is.

CONAN: And this - a lot of this stems from concerted diplomacy from the European Union.

Ms. SWEIG: Yes, it does. The government of Jose Luis Zapatero of Spain had the presidency of the European Union from January until the end of last month, and had been working prior to that presidency, and over the first half of this year, with the Cuban government, to get that - the prisoners released. There's something called the common position of the European Union, which is a sort of soft sanctions policy that's been in place since the 1990s, which Spain and other members states hope to get rid of and, of course, so does the Cuban government hope to, because this will open the way to cooperation, agreements, assistance and presumably greater foreign investment if the Cuban government opens in that direction.

CONAN: And then the sort of avenue of approach proved to be the Vatican.

Ms. SWEIG: The Vatican - very important. The Vatican has had a channel of dialogue open, as you know, with the Cuban government for about the last 15 years. Pope John Paul II was there in 1999. Gradually, the Cuban Catholic Church has opened up considerable more space for itself on the ground. And I can't overstate the importance of the Cuban Catholic Church, the Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of Havana, and his intervention and dialogue and engagement with the Cuban government, specifically Raul Castro.

CONAN: And the other development, how much is Raul in charge, and how much is Fidel in charge? We thought it was Raul in consultation, occasionally with his brother. Then his brother appears on TV this week and looks, well, for a man his age, pale.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SWEIG: I think your characterization is still accurate. In Fidel's hour-and-15-minute talk the other night with, which was taped over the weekend, he made not one reference to this political prison issue and not one reference to internal domestic matters. And there was a large internal domestic component to this prisoner release.

He was talking about foreign policy. This is something that he's been writing about in his reflections for the last several years. I think it's very clear from how this diplomacy took place, and between who and whom, that Raul Castro has the reigns of government and of foreign policy, and Fidel's intervention, if you will, was to show his stalwart base that he's the keeper of the ideological flame, the great leader, but not - by saying nothing about domestic matters or the political prisoner issue, clearly not running the show, but consulted as you said.

CONAN: And able to predict war between the United States and Iran without really addressing any of the immediate issues involving Cuba.

Ms. SWEIG: Precisely. So he is providing a sort of orientation, talking about the - you know, Cuba, of course, has a principled position in terms of Cuban foreign policy that opposes the imposition of sanction -of sanctions - that sees the use of force to bring about regime change, whether in this hemisphere against Cuba or across the world in Iraq and Iran, as anathema. So Fidel getting out there and saying essentially to his political base, look, you know, we are cutting this deal with members of the European Union who are with the Americans, with our mortal enemy, but here is - you know, we still remain adamantly opposed to the kind of sanctions policy that our temporary allies on this political prisoner business are helping us to figure out.

So I think that it's a parsing for the Cuban base within the party and within the military that Fidel is playing out while a very pragmatic foreign policy is actually underway on the part of Raul Castro, a foreign policy which I should add has a lot to do with creating space internally to go forward on a number of domestic, especially economic reforms, within the country that really couldn't happen until he took care of this large albatross hanging over his neck.

CONAN: We're talking about is this beginning of real change in Cuba with Julia Sweig, who's director of Latin American Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll go to Steve. Steve on the line with us from Grand Rapids.

STEVE (Caller): Yes. Hi. It seems to me that this prisoner release is more window dressing than anything substantial. These people, as I understand it, have to leave the country. They're not allowed to live in Cuba anymore. So they're going to be exiles. And it seems to me it's just perhaps a shallow attempt at Cuba trying to improve its relations with the rest of the world without really serious reform. Plus, as I understand it, only seven out of the 52 have been released.

CONAN: Nine as of today, but the others, we're told, will be released. Julia Sweig?

Ms. SWEIG: I think the question of whether this is window dressing or not of course remains to be seen. The internal issues that are so critical in Cuba that have to do with participation, a more open society - I'm not going to say liberal democracy, market economy, because I think we're very far from getting to that within Cuba. But I think we have to see what comes after this release.

And as the issue of whether the prisoners were obliged to leave the country as a condition of their release, that's very ambiguous still. I don't know the exact answer. What I have heard from Catholic Church sources is that no, that they were given the option to stay or to go, and that some are actually choosing to stay. So we'll have to judge this over the march of time.

CONAN: And just to follow up on Steve's point, wouldn't it be - will there be more political prisoners if there is indeed a further opening and people do want to petition their government? Might they end up behind bars or not?

Ms. SWEIG: Well, they might. We don't know. The kind of low intensity repression that takes place in Cuba of the Raul Castro government is one of more catch and release, a kind of - a lot of self-censorship still exists in Cuba. I think I would be - nobody knows whether the kinds of longer term large sentences that we've seen under the Fidel Castro regime, of which these are remnants, will continue under Raul. Let's just watch this closely.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

STEVE: Thank you. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Rashanda(ph), Rashanda with us from Statesboro, Georgia.

RASHANDA (Caller): Yes. I think that the move for them to release prisoners is a good sign in Cuba. I do think that, as you said, there is a lot things that still have to happen for Cuba to do a 180. But I think it's to dishonor (unintelligible) this would happen - wouldn't have happened if Fidel Castro was still in office.

CONAN: Would it have been more difficult for Fidel to have climbed down on this issue?

Ms. SWEIG: Yes, I think so. I think there were moments and opportunities when this has been on the table before. This is not the first prisoner release. Although I think it would've been more difficult for him to climb down on this issue, he himself when he was running the country officially as president released tranches(ph) of political prisoners over the last several decades, also with the intervention, for example, of Jesse Jackson, of Jimmy Carter, of the Catholic Church, of prominent Cuban Americans.

So this is not the first time that this has happened. But this Fidel Castro in the late 2000s, when the relationship with the United States had become especially intense - that is, in 2003 on the cusp of the war in Iraq, where there was no prospect in that Fidel Castro's mind of a real rapprochement with Cuba - excuse me - with United States or with Europe, may have had a much harder time doing so. Raul Castro has a different international environment and a different domestic environment to contend with than Fidel had.

CONAN: Rashanda, thanks very much for the call.

RASHANDA: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And we're talking again with Julia Sweig, the Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin American Studies, director of Latin American Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of "A Reform Movement in Cuba?" - and "Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And I have to ask you, Julia, when you saw Fidel on TV the other day, did you think - were you surprised at how well he looked?

Ms. SWEIG: Well, I think I was a bit surprised. I mean, I have not seen him in person, of course, but - for many, many years, but he looked better than I had seen him when he last appeared, maybe last year, and very, very well. He does look hale, as you said, Neal.

CONAN: Here's an email from Jane in Marathon, Florida: What will it take for Congress to let U.S. citizens travel to Cuba?

Ms. SWEIG: Well, my take: the state of Florida becoming less important in the national political presidential electoral map, Jane in Florida. But it would take a little bit of leadership and a little bit of political will. Right now the way the forces are arrayed, we have nationally 60 to 70 percent of Americans polling repeatedly in favor of lifting the travel ban to Cuba and ending the embargo, commencing diplomatic relations.

We now also have, just a poll two days ago, 64 percent of the Cuban American community likewise supporting the end of the travel ban, not only for themselves but for all Americans. I think public opinion in this country is way ahead of the Congress.

But having said that, we have had legislation to end the travel ban pass in one committee of the House, subcommittee on agriculture. It may well go before two other committees. And as I understand it, the speaker of the House is looking to whether the votes actually exist on the for a floor vote. The Senate likewise - the two cosponsors of the bill have put out a statement saying they have the sponsors, they have the votes -excuse me - to pass this bill.

It would also take some signaling from the White House to indicate it at minimum wouldn't veto such legislation and might even support or have a neutral stance toward the legislation.

CONAN: Let's go next to Barbara, and Barbara is with us from San Antonio.

BARBARA (Caller): Yes, good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BARBARA: My question is the Cuban Five, who are being held in American prisons and who have not been allowed visitation by their families.

CONAN: Are these prisoners on the table? These are people charged with espionage.

BARBARA: They are charged with that, but there's a lot of controversy and discussion as to whether those charges are valid. And they're being held in American prisons and their family members have not been allowed entry into the country to visit them.

CONAN: Julia Sweig, any prospect of a change in that situation?

Ms. SWEIG: Well, the question was that you asked, Neal, is this on the table. I don't know if this is on the table formally between the two governments. There are high(ph) - as far as I understand it, on again, off again discussions about conjugal visits for the Cuban Five that are in American prisons. I note, of course, that we just had a very quick spy swap between the United States and Russia, which in my view comes as the result of the presence of two things, a sort of political will by both governments and good diplomacy to get it done.

That doesn't exist on this issue between the two governments at this point. It's an issue that should come on the table but is very sensitive here for reasons related to domestic politics. And - but nevertheless, I agree that it should come onto the table, I hope.

BARBARA: I just wanted to say that their human rights are being violated, given the circumstances of their incarceration. And thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: All right, Barbara, that's - there is one American being held in Cuba, though. Apparently not on espionage?

Ms. SWEIG: This is not on espionage. His name is Alan Gross. He's neither being held on espionage or is a political prisoner. He hasn't been formally charged. He's been held since December. He is a resident of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. He is there working as a contractor for the United States government on a program that is funded by the U.S. Congress and administered to Beltway bandit companies by USAID, part of a program designed to - depending upon how you look at it - promote democracy in Cuba, carry out regime change activities. It's a sort of - a new iteration of what used to be covert programs that some call covert overt programs.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SWEIG: He was passing along satellite technology, very sophisticated satellite technology, had been to Cuba on a number of occasions, as I understand it - going down as a tourist visa but engaging in this activity as a contractor, and that Cubans arrested him. And as I understand it, there have been significant discussions between the two governments about him. The arrest has affected a policy review within this administration about the appropriateness of these programs.

And as I understand it, these programs are being refashioned to have much more oversight, accountability and transparency. I would hope that the Cuban government would release him as soon as possible.

CONAN: Julia Sweig, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. SWEIG: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Julia Sweig at the Council on Foreign Relations. There's a link to her article on Cuba at our website, npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

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