August 2, 2010
Castro forces dissidents to accept exile as the price of release from his dungeons.
The announcement last month that Cuba would exile 52 political prisoners currently in jail was supposed to help repair the regime's international image in the wake of the death of Orlando Zapata.
It's not working. The 21 who have already arrived in Spain are speaking out about the hell hole run by Castro that is Cuba. And at least 10 are refusing to leave the country. Zapata lives.
In December 2009, Zapata, who had been rotting in a rat-infested prison cell and repeatedly tortured for almost seven years, launched a hunger strike on behalf of Cuba's prisoners of conscience. He was protesting the unjust incarceration of nonviolent dissidents and the cruelty inside the dungeons. The regime desperately tried to break him, even refusing him water for a time. This led to kidney failure and his death on Feb. 23.
Zapata's passing sparked international outrage, and on July 7 the regime yielded to the pressure. It agreed to release the independent journalists, writers and democracy advocates who had been jailed during the 2003 crackdown on dissent, known as the Black Spring.
Yet only the naïve could read Castro's forced acquiescence as a break with tyranny. It is instead a cynical ploy to clean the face of a dictatorship. It is also an effort to reclaim respectability for the world's pro-Castro politicians, including Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos. No one understands this better than the former prisoners.
Those sent to Spain have not hidden their joy about getting out of Cuban jails. "There are no words to fairly describe how amazed and excited I was when I saw myself free and next to my wife and daughter again," Normando Hernández González told the Committee to Protect Journalists in a telephone interview. But Mr. Hernández, an independent journalist, hasn't minced words about Cuban repression either.
In a telephone interview with Miami's Radio Republica, he talked about his "indescribable" time in jail. "It's crime upon crime, the deep hatred of the Castro regime toward everyone who peacefully dissents. It is a unique life experience that I do not wish upon my worst enemy."
The regime tried to spruce up the former prisoners by dressing them in neatly pressed trousers, white shirts and ties. But they brought tales of horror to Spain. Ariel Sigler, a labor organizer who went into prison seven years ago a healthy man but is now confined to a wheel chair, arrived in Miami on Wednesday.
These graphic reminders of Castro's twisted mind have been bad for Mr. Moratinos's wider agenda, which is to use the release of the prisoners to convince the European Union to abandon its "common position" on Cuba. Adopted in 1996, it says that the EU seeks "in its relations with Cuba" to "encourage a process of transition to pluralist democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as a sustainable recovery and improvement in the living standards of the Cuban people." Mr. Moratinos's desire to help Fidel end the common position is a source of anger among Cuban dissidents.
The former prisoners also resent their exile, after, as Mr. Hernández puts it, "being kidnapped for seven years." He explained to Radio Republica: "The more logical outcome would be, 'Yes, you are freeing me. Free me to my home. Free me so I won't be apart from my sister, from my family, from my people, from my neighbors.'" Instead he says he was "practically forced" to go to Spain in exchange for getting out of jail, and to get health care for his daughter and himself.
Cuba's horrendous prison conditions are no secret. In his chilling memoir "Against All Hope" (1986, 2001), Armando Valladares cataloged the brutality he experienced first hand as a prisoner of conscience for 22 years. A steady stream of exiles have echoed his claims. But another bit of cruelty is less well understood: For a half century the regime has let political prisoners out of jail only if they sign a paper saying they have been "rehabilitated" or, when the regime is under pressure, if they agree to leave the island. Getting rid of the strong-willed, while being patted on the back for their "release," has been Castro's win-win.
Now some prisoners are refusing to deal. Ten of the 52, including Óscar Elías Biscet, famous for his pacifism, say they will not accept exile as a condition of release. These brave souls remain locked up.
Of course, if they are released and allowed to stay home, the same "crimes" that landed them in prison are likely to do so again. A particular hazard for dissidents is Article 72 of the Orwellian Cuban criminal code, which says that "any person shall be deemed dangerous" if he has "shown a proclivity to commit crimes demonstrated by conduct that is in manifest contradiction with the norms of socialist morality."
Cuban dissidents claim there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of prisoners locked up for "dangerousness," "contempt" and other crimes of dissent. No one knows for sure. But shipping a few dozen out of the country doesn't qualify as a step toward civilized government. The memory of Zapata demands much more.
Write to O'Grady@wsj.com