Barack Obama has long believed United States Cuba policy should change; he so when he first ran for president in 2008. Back then, though, Sen. Obama stressed that the U.S. should hold Cuba to a number of stringent conditions before even beginning to normalize relations. The first of those conditions was freedom for Cuba's political prisoners.
Obama laid out his proposal in a May 23, 2008 speech in Miami. Noting the "unanswered cries of the political prisoners heard from the jails of Havana," Obama said his policy toward Cuba "will be guided by one word: libertad."
"The road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba's political prisoners," Obama said. The value of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, Obama went on to explain, is that it "provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: If you take significant steps towards democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations."
Beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners. It was a pretty clear demand. Only after freedom was granted would Obama begin normalizing relations.
Fast forward six and a half years. In an address from the Cabinet Room Wednesday, President Obama announced that he would "begin to normalize relations" with Cuba through "the most significant changes in our policy in more than fifty years." But the president did not insist on freedom for all political prisoners, which had once been a requirement for even the first steps toward normalization.
Yes, there were prisoners involved in the deal: Cuba freed American Alan Gross, who had been held unjustly for five years. And there was a swap of three Cubans held by the United States — one of whom was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder — for an American spy imprisoned in Cuba.
But that didn't touch the political prisoner issue. As far as that topic was concerned, Obama announced, "In addition to the return of Alan Gross and the release of our intelligence agent, we welcome Cuba’s decision to release a substantial number of prisoners whose cases were directly raised with the Cuban government by my team." White House aides said the number of such prisoners was 53. "These are individuals that we believe are political prisoners, and we welcome very much their release," a senior administration official told reporters in a conference call. "A number of those individuals have already been released, and we expect to continue to see those releases going forward."
Does the release, or the hoped-for release, of 53 political prisoners fulfill Obama's 2008 pledge that he would begin normalizing relations only after Cuba takes "significant steps towards democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners"? Are those 53 prisoners all the political prisoners in Cuba?
The answer is no, and it's not even close. From a piece by USA Today's Alan Gomez this week:
According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, the number of political prisoners detained in Cuba has risen from 2,074 in 2010 to 6,424 in 2013. Through the first 11 months of 2014, that number is at 8,410.
[University of Havana professor Elaine] Diaz said those numbers could be even higher, but the Cuban government has devised ways to keep them low. For example, rather than arresting, prosecuting and sending someone to prison, Diaz said, authorities hold them without charge for short periods of time, which accomplishes the same goal in a different way. "You don't put someone in prison for 15 years, but every time they go out in the street, you detain them," Diaz said.
Cuba remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent. In 2012, the government of Raul Castro continued to enforce political conformity using short-term detentions, beatings, public acts of repudiation, travel restrictions, and forced exile.
Although in 2010 and 2011 the Cuban government released dozens of political prisoners on the condition that they accept exile in exchange for their freedom, the government continues to sentence dissidents to one to four-year prison terms in closed, summary trials, and holds others for extended periods without charge. It has also relied increasingly upon arbitrary arrests and short-term detentions to restrict the basic rights of its critics, including the right to assemble and move freely.
So Obama settled for very little of his demand that Cuba release all its political prisoners before normalization could even begin. And just to underscore the point, Cuban President Raul Castro made a defiant speech Saturday telling Obama and the United States they can forget about making Cuba into a different place. "Every country has the inalienable right to choose its own political systems," Castro said, according to an account in the New York Times. "No one should believe that improving relations with the United States means Cuba renouncing its ideas."
That doesn't sound like a Cuban leader who plans to make many changes in exchange for greater U.S. recognition. And it appears the White House really isn't expecting much, at least when it comes to the formerly critical issue of political prisoners.
On Thursday, a reporter asked White House spokesman Josh Earnest, "When the Castro government starts rounding up political prisoners again, do you have to re-examine what — " At that moment, Earnest cut the reporter off. "They've been doing that for more than 50 years," he said of the Cuban government. "And we're going to continue to use this openness and this engagement to focus pressure on the Castro regime, to live up — or at least to respect if not protect the basic fundamental human and political rights that this country has long championed."
It was not exactly the picture of a White House determined to make Cuba release its political prisoners in exchange for the beginning of normalization. That's just not what's going on — no matter what candidate Barack Obama said way back in 2008.