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 prompted Newsweek’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.”
Freedom House’s 2010 Freedom in the World survey again designated Cuba as the sole “not free” country in the Americas. It also placed Cuba among its “worst of the worst” countries, which kept it on the shortlist of “the world’s most repressive regimes.”
In an October 2009 report, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor rebuked Cuba for its lack of religious freedom. “The Government continued to exert control over all aspects of societal life, including religious expression,” the report stated. Violations of religious freedom included efforts to control and monitor religious activities and fines against unregistered religious groups.
The Cuban government continues to be one of the few in the world that prohibit the International Committee of the Red Cross access to their prisons. The condition of those prisons was highlighted in February with the hunger-strike death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo. Zapata, imprisoned for nonviolent political activism, undertook the strike to protest prison conditions. The international outcry after his death was partially responsible for prompting the regime to agree to release prisoners willing to be exiled.
The continued mistreatment of nonviolent political activists comes as no surprise to those who remember Raul as the official who oversaw thousands of executions of political prisoners in the early years of the revolution.
As with most tyrants, the Castros are skilled at sending mixed signals about their intentions. It was months into the revolution before many democrats realized that Fidel’s repeated declarations that his revolution was informed not by Marxism but by democratic and Christian principles were lies.
Last year, the Cuban government invited Manfred Novak, the United Nations’ special investigator on torture, to inspect Cuba’s prisons. The invitation drew praise from the international community. But the government rescinded the invitation last month, stating that an outside investigation was not needed.
In spring, Raul was lauded for agreeing to end persecution of the Ladies in White, a group of wives, mothers and other female relatives of Cuban political prisoners who were being harassed, beaten and prevented by government security agents from making their weekly peaceful protests.
But the government resumed its harassment in August. It deployed large mobs to intimidate Reina Luisa Tamayo, mother of deceased hunger striker Zapata, preventing her from marching and attending Mass.
Even the prisoner releases are less than they appear. The Cuban government pledged to release all its political prisoners without any conditions by Nov. 7. But that deadline has passed, and 13 prisoners who refuse to be exiled from the island remain incarcerated.
Last month, Berta Soler of the Ladies in White accused the government of “applying psychological pressure to those remaining in prison because they want to see them out of the country.”
The prisoner releases and economic changes are not meaningful and lasting steps toward reform. Instead, they are short-term measures designed to extract economic concessions from the United States and Europe.
As Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, put it to us in an interview, “It’s wrong to think that [Cuba is] now on this one-way road toward openness and democracy. That’s not the case at all. Cuba needs something. What the regime is hoping for is to get some economic help.”
Cuba’s economy is in abysmal shape. Food production has slowed, and tourism, foreign remittances and subsidies from Venezuela have plunged with the global economy.
The Cuban government is laying off 500,000 workers not because it wants to move toward a free-market capitalist system. It is doing so because it can no longer afford to pay those workers’ monthly $20 wages.
Similarly, the regime is exiling some of its political prisoners not because it suddenly has seen the light on human rights and democracy. Rather, it’s exiling them because it’s desperate for America and the EU to relax economic sanctions, which both have made conditional principally on the release of political prisoners.
The Castro brothers are experts at easing their grip on Cuba just enough and just long enough to get what they want. On many occasions throughout the Castro regime’s 51 years, it has freed or exiled political prisoners or made other “reforms” only to reverse course once it got what it needed.
Ms. Kaufman Purcell says, “The way [authoritarian regimes] often work is that when things get bad, when there’s a lot of external pressure, what happens is that they release [prisoners], and at some point they get new ones.”
Armando Valladares, a Cuban-born former political prisoner and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, told us, “The liberation of groups of political prisoners is a frequent practice in Cuba. It has happened many times for the revolution’s interests. [The prisoner releases] absolutely should not be interpreted … as a change in the tyranny’s repressive structure.”
After foreign aid from the Soviet Union was cut off with the fall of communism in the early 1990s, the Cuban government loosened controls on private enterprise, allowing 200,000 workers to earn money as street vendors and taxi drivers. But as soon as the economy recovered, many of the new businesses were shut down.
When the government wanted some good publicity ahead of Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998, it released 300 political prisoners. As soon as the press attention subsided, the prisons were filled again with political opponents.
If fundamental political and economic reforms are to be made in Cuba, the government’s repressive legal system and security apparatus must be dismantled. That didn’t happen for more than four decades under Fidel. And it’s not happening under Raul.
Daniel Allott is senior writer at American Values and a Washington fellow at the National Review Institute. He also is associate producer of “Oscar’s Cuba,” a documentary film about Cuban prisoner of conscience Dr. Oscar Biscet. Jordan Allott is director and executive producer of “Oscar’s Cuba.”