MARGARET WARNER: And for more on all this, we turn to Jorge Dominguez, a professor of government at Harvard University. He returned from a trip to Cuba last month, and Vanessa Lopez, a research associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. She was in Cuba in 2006 interviewing political dissidents.
Welcome to you both.
Professor Dominguez, what explains this move on the Cuban government’s part now?
JORGE DOMINGUEZ, professor of government, Harvard University: I think that President Raul Castro has been trying to focus on the economy systematically.
Over the course of the first six months of this year, there was a great deal of international criticism of the treatment of those who were dissidents in the opposition, the Ladies in White. There were issues and discussions about the treatment of political prisoners.
And I think he decided to make a clear decision, which was to free all of those who had been arrested as a group in 2003, not to free them one by one, but to do it all at once to make it clear that it was a policy decision, not just in response to the personal circumstances of one or another, and in effect to close a chapter that had gotten in the way of his government.
MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Lopez, how do you see it?
And we should explain the Ladies in White are the wives and sisters of this group that was all arrested in ’03.
But what do you think explains it? Do you think it’s a combination of international and domestic pressure?
VANESSA LOPEZ, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami: Well, I do feel it has a lot to do with international pressure, but I to think it’s more based on the domestic pressure that the Cuban government was feeling.
The Ladies in White were a growing group, and they also had a lot of support within Cuba’s community. And, consequently, their marches down Cuba’s streets were being joined by other Cuban citizens that didn’t have anyone in jail.
So, to kind of deal with this increased pressure, they felt that it would be best for them to just get rid of these political prisoners. And, you know, they’re not actually letting them back into Cuban society. They’re sending them to Spain or elsewhere. For now, it’s to Spain.
So, this really — it relieves them of this pressure, and without any threat to the Cuban government, because these people will not be on Cuba’s streets. They will not be able to organize Cuba’s civil society, as they would have if they were just released into the island.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Dominguez, do you think that that is part of it, too, that they were feeling domestic pressure? And, if so, does this suggest that — does it herald a more open political climate at all in Cuba, or is it just a tactical move?
JORGE DOMINGUEZ: I think, for the time being, there are really two things going on at the same time. One is freeing all of these political prisoners.
The other one is how Raul Castro chose to do it. He could simply have said, I free them. He could have announced it on July 26, which is the annual speech on the state of the country. He could have announced it when the Cuban National Assembly meets a few days later on August 1.
Instead, he chose to say that he was releasing them as a result of a conversation with the Roman Catholic cardinal-archbishop of Havana. And to make clear that he also wanted to take the second step, he made sure to have himself photographed with the Spanish foreign minister and the cardinal, and have the photo published on the front page of the official newspaper of the Communist Party.
And he had the Cuban government news agency, Prensa Latina, distribute the cardinal’s press release. So, Raul Castro, in addition to freeing these political prisoners, is saying that he wants the Roman Catholic Church to play some role. The role may be limited to more discussions about prisoners. It may be with regard to treatment of dissidents. Not sure.
But he has made two decisions, not just one. One is to release the prisoners. The other one is to convey this new role that the Roman Catholic Church has not had in Cuba in a half-century.
MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Lopez, so why — what explains, then, if this was all a really concerted, orchestrated rollout, that suddenly Fidel Castro pops up last night on television, doesn’t say a word about this? These are people he had had arrested in the first place. What does that say?
VANESSA LOPEZ: Well, the timing of Fidel’s speech is really indicative of how it does relate to the political prisoners being released.
Most importantly, for Fidel Castro personally, many people viewed these 75 political prisoners, which are now 52, after some have been released over the years since 2003, many people viewed them as Fidel’s prisoners. And they considered them to be — that they would serve out the rest of their sentences unless something were to happen to Fidel.
So, this was kind of Fidel’s way to send a message to the Cuban people and to the international community that he’s still around. And, in his narcissism, I don’t think that he is fully aware of — of how elderly and how confused he can sometimes come across when he is on this — the state media.
And, secondly, for the timing, this works at the benefit of the Cuban government, because it takes away the focus from the political prisoners. In fact, if you look at the media coverage yesterday, it’s 3-1, three in favor of Fidel Castro speaking on television and one for the release of the political prisoners. So, it really does serve to mute what is happening with Cuba’s political prisoners.
MARGARET WARNER: And you’re talking about international coverage or within Cuba?
VANESSA LOPEZ: No, definitely international coverage.
Domestically, within Cuba, there’s no coverage of what is going on with the political prisoners. There’s coverage of the meetings with the church. There’s coverage of meetings with Spain, but Cuba does maintain that it doesn’t have political prisoners.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Dominguez, back to you, does Fidel Castro remain a relevant political figure? If so, in what way? Or is this totally Raul Castro’s show?
JORGE DOMINGUEZ: Fidel Castro remains obviously a very significant public figure in Cuba.
For the most part, his impact on domestic Cuban politics and policies, as well as on Cuban international relations, has been on the wane. It has not disappeared. He is a symbol of what Cuba used to be, of the Cuba he probably would still like it to be. He tends to express himself cautiously, however, on the decisions that his brother has made.
Therefore, on the question of the political prisoners or the role of the church, that was simply not a topic for his discussion. It’s worth saying that he has been addressing through these articles that he publishes from time to time in the Cuban press the question of U.S. policy toward Iran and North Korea now for many weeks.
And, so, it was not unusual for him to discuss this topic. This is in fact the subject of several of his most recent communications.
MARGARET WARNER: We’re almost out of time. Let me just go back to Ms. Lopez for a quick final thought.
Do you think any of this was directed on the Cuban government’s part to a desire to get some sort of actual reaction, something from the Europeans or the Americans?
VANESSA LOPEZ: I do think that it was aimed towards the European — toward the European community, in order to change the European common consensus towards Cuba.
I don’t think it was aimed towards the United States, even though this bill will be making its way through the legislature. I think, if Cuba wanted to make a good-faith gesture towards the United States, they would release — they would release the American contractor that they have been holding since December of last year.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, we’re going to have to leave it there.
Thank you both very much.
JORGE DOMINGUEZ: Thank you.
VANESSA LOPEZ: Thank you.