Cuba has signalled that it will free all its political prisoners and let them stay on the island in a bold attempt to repair Havana’s ties with the international community.
Senior officials said the recent release of 15 prisoners would be followed by dozens more and the dissidents would be free to stay, should they wish, or they could emigrate.
The announcement was followed by another public appearance by Fidel Castro, who on Sunday attended a ceremony honouring comrades killed at the outset of his revolution over half a century ago.
The 83-year-old former president wore an olive-green shirt and state media referred to him as “Commander in Chief”, emphasising his continued influence despite being sidelined by a health crisis in 2006.
‘Free all the people’
His return to the limelight has coincided with the recent prisoner releases, part of a Vatican-brokered deal in which the communist government promised to free 52 of 75 detainees jailed in a 2003 crackdown.
Last week the head of Cuba’s Parliament, Ricardo Alarcon, went further and said it was the government’s wish “to free all the people” on condition they had not been accused of murder.
Speaking on the sidelines of a conference in Switzerland, he said the released men would not be forced into exile. “In Cuba there are people who have been freed from prison several years ago and who stayed in their homes. As in this case.”
Western diplomats in Havana said authorities were taking brave, pragmatic steps. “It shows the government is willing to change course,” said one. “Whether it is linked to a wider process, time will tell.” Spain has urged the European Union to reward Havana with diplomatic and economic concessions.
The releases — and promise of more to come — altered the political landscape, said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue thinktank. “It does not signify political liberalisation — no one is claiming that — but it is a positive step in which everyone wins.” He urged the Obama administration to respond creatively.
Exactly how many political prisoners there are is now an urgent question. Amnesty International, using narrow criteria, lists 53 prisoners of conscience. Human Rights Watch, which includes activists jailed on ostensibly criminal charges, estimates more. The Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission counted 167. The Castro government does not acknowledge holding any political prisoners, only US-funded “mercenaries” and “terrorists”.
Freeing prisoners should help President Raul Castro to concentrate on stalled economic reforms which are widely expected to determine the fate of the revolution. “Raul knows that’s where he needs to direct his energies,” said one diplomat.
Over the weekend a group of artists and intellectuals probed the boundaries of official tolerance with an unauthorised three-day meeting in Havana to debate Cuba’s future. “It was an experiment to see if people could openly express views,” said Antonio Rodiles, one of the organisers. “If we succeed with this I think we will be able to say we have all won: the authorities, the participants and the public.” — Guardian News and Media 2010