- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 24, 2010

It has been more than four years since Raul Castro assumed the duties of the presidency of Cuba and more than 2 1/2 years since he officially took over for his older brother, Fidel.

In that time, words like “pragmatic,” “practical” and “reformer” have often been attached to Raul as a way of contrasting his governing philosophy with his brother’s and to signal that major political and economic reforms may be imminent.

But a sober analysis suggests that meaningful change has not occurred. In fact, given the conclusions of several reports on human rights in Cuba, and based on our conversations with dozens of Cuba experts and Cubans both inside and outside Cuba, it is clear that the regime’s tyranny is as entrenched as ever.

The Raul-as-reformer narrative began when he announced modest economic changes early in his reign. These included privatizing some farmland, denationalizing small beauty parlors and taxi-driving enterprises and loosening restrictions on the use of cell phones and other electronics.

Then, in July, the Cuban government announced that it would release the remaining 52 political prisoners it had imprisoned during the “Black Spring,” a mass arrest of nonviolent activists in March 2003. As of Nov. 12, 39 prisoners had been released and exiled to Spain.

In September, the Cuban labor federation announced a government plan to fire more than 500,000 state employees between October and March. It would mark the biggest shift of jobs from the public to the private sector in nearly 50 years.

All of this has convinced many of the major players in Cuba’s relationship with the outside world that Raul is someone they can work with.

Even before the recent changes, President Obama talked about forging “a new beginning” with Cuba. After a July meeting with Raul in Havana, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos proclaimed the opening of “a new phase in Cuba” and insisted “there is no longer any reason to maintain the [European Union’s] Common Position on Cuba,” which calls for normalizing relations with the regime once progress is made on human rights and democracy issues.

Even the beleaguered Cuban Catholic Church - whose leaders were given the cold shoulder by Fidel, who preferred to negotiate directly with the Vatican on church matters - sees an opening. Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, Archbishop of Havana, announced a “magnificent beginning” to a new relationship with the regime after talks with Raul last spring.

Journalists, too, see change they can believe in with Raul. The prisoner releases promptedNewsweek’s Patrick Symmes to write, “A half century of repression [in Cuba] appears to be ending.”

Such claims are contradicted by the findings of numerous human rights groups. In a November 2009 study titled “New Castro, Same Cuba: Political Prisoners in the Post-Fidel Era,” Human Rights Watch documented more than 40 cases of Cubans imprisoned for “dangerousness” under a Cuban law that allows authorities to imprison persons they suspect might commit a crime in the future.

Scores of other Cubans have been sentenced under Raul for violating laws that criminalize free expression and association. Cubans have been imprisoned for failing to attend government rallies, for not belonging to official party organizations and even for being unemployed.

Non-Cubans are not immune to such treatment. One of this piece’s authors, Jordan Allott, was detained briefly and interrogated by Cuban police during a trip across Cuba in 2009 merely for asking a couple of Cubans to talk about the Cuban Revolution on a street in Camaguey.

American contractor Alan Gross has been imprisoned in Cuba for nearly a year. He is accused of trying to provide unauthorized satellite Internet connections to Cuba’s tiny Jewish community.

In its report, Human Rights Watch concluded that rather than dismantle Fidel’s “system of abusive laws and institutions,” Raul “has kept it firmly in place and fully active.”

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