The announcement that Cuba’s communist regime intends to free 52 political prisoners over the next few months raises serious questions that require honest answers by the Cuban government and by those anxious to bestow kudos upon Cuban President Raul Castro for these cosmetic and expedient gestures of leniency.

  • How many political prisoners? Prominent U.S. Members of Congress—Ileana Ros Lethenen (R–FL), Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R–FL), and Mario Diaz-Balart (R–FL)—warn that, by accepting claims that place the number of Cuban political prisoners at less than 200, the U.S. and the international community are being suckered by the Castro regime. The congressmen correctly note that the actual number of “political prisoners” runs in the thousands and includes those jailed for “farcical criminal charges” such as “peligrosidad” (dangerousness) and desacato a la autoridad” (contempt against authority).
  • Is the regime just shifting its pattern of repression? According to Elizardo Sanchez of the unofficial but authoritative Cuban Human Rights Commission, the Cuban communist regime is moving to “low intensity” repression in which the regime resorts to short-term detentions of opposition activists rather than long-term jail sentences. Sanchez reports 802 such detentions took place in the first half of 2010.
  • Will the prisoners be forced into exile? It is unclear whether the released prisoners be expelled from Cuba unjustly, compounding the injustice of their imprisonment with an “immoral act” as notes intrepid freedom blogger Yoani Sanchez.
  • Will genuine dialogue follow? The release of political prisoners will only have meaning if the Castro regime follows up with a serious dialogue with the Catholic Church, civil society, and all dissidents including those soon to be released. Such dialogue must have measurable outcomes. The objective must be the end of all political repression on the island and the process for opening political and economic space to the genuine protection of human rights and individual liberty.

The releases—if they occur—will lead to additional calls from liberal Democrats and other advocates of normalized relations with communist Cuba to end travel and trade restrictions. Such actions are premature and inconsistent with President Obama’s promise to promote Libertad [liberty] for Cuba. Permitting a few political prisoners to leave their cells is not necessarily a harbinger of genuine change.

The release of individuals unjustly imprisoned in Cuba’s gulags is welcome news. However, if the system, the laws, and the leaders who locked up the innocent in the first place continue wielding unlimited power, dictating what all Cubans can say and do, and dispense political justice as they see fit, little is gained. The status quo prevails and tyranny triumphs.