Dissidents are not swayed by gesture, call on Francis to speak up for freedom
Cuba said it will release more than 3,500 prisoners in a goodwill gesture ahead of a historic visit by Pope Francis, the BBC reported.
Havana said that those to be freed include inmates due for conditional release next year, as well as a number of foreign prisoners.
But Cuban dissidents are receiving the news with skepticism.
“The pre-Papal ‘pardon’ is a familiar ruse of the Castro brothers,” said the blog Capitol Hill Cubans. “In 1998, Fidel released 300 prisoners ahead of Pope John Paul II’s visit. And in 2012, Raul released nearly 3,100 ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit.”
The jail cells were quickly refilled as the Pontiffs jetted back to Rome, the blog said. In fact, during Benedict’s visit, there was a crackdown on democracy activists resulting in some spending up to three years in prison, without trial or charges.
“Today’s ‘pardon’ of 3,500 non-political prisoners stands in contrast to the over 4,000 political arrests the Castro regime has undertaken since December 17, 2014,” the blog said.
That’s the date President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro made a simultaneous announcement that led ultimately to the reopening of full diplomatic relations between Washington and the communist regime. Pope Francis reportedly was very involved in facilitating talks leading to the new opening.
The Argentine Pope will make a three-day visit to the island beginning Sept. 19 on his way to the United States. He is expected to meet with Fidel Castro if the aged revolutionary leader’s health allows.
The BBC said that those found guilty of “crimes against state security” will not be part of the prisoner release, seemingly ruling out several high-profile political prisoners.
Many observers have noted that there is little improvement in Cuba’s human rights record since last December. George Phillips, who worked on human rights issues for Congressman Christopher Smith, wrote in The Washington Times that in July alone, it was reported that nearly 700 dissidents were arrested by the Castro regime.
In addition to arrests, there have been frequent reports of harassment of a group of women, the so-called Ladies in White, that marches every Sunday after Mass to bring attention to the plight of their jailed dissident husbands.
“We were arrested, violently, we were insulted, assaulted…by paramilitary, uniformed police, the Special Branch of the National Revolutionary Police (PNR) and rapid response brigade of the Communist Party, operations directed by the Department of State Security (DSE), and were transported by bus to the police school located in Tarara, former pioneer camp, which is today a torture center for Ladies in White,” a report from the group said of one march in August.
Phillips hopes Pope Francis will use his visit to promote greater freedom on the communist island. The Pope, he said, “should speak out boldly against the continued abuses of the Castro regime and embrace the Ladies in White and other voices of freedom. He should embrace [jailed dissidents, including Dr. Oscar Biscet] and demand to meet with them. He should do what his predecessors did in recognizing those who have fought for freedom for their people…. as Pope John Paul embraced Lech Wales’s Solidarity movement in Poland.”
If Pope Francis’ former views are anything to go on, Phillips may get his wish. Soon after the 1998 papal visit to the island, Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio penned a booklet, “Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro.” According to a summary by the Associated Press, the booklet harshly criticized socialism—and by extension Castro’s atheist revolution—for denying individuals their “transcendent dignity” and putting them solely at the service of the state. But Bergoglio also denounced the US embargo and economic isolation of Cuba that, he said, impoverished the island.