(/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/03/raul_fidel0801.jpg)It’s been a good few years for Raul Castro. Since taking over for his ailing brother Fidel in 2006, Raul has profited from international hopes that he represents the softening of the communist regime, even as he has done little to ease political and economic repression inside the country. Despite that failure, the Obama administration has relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba and allowed for the inflow of remittances from Cubans living abroad. Calls for the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations are increasingly heard. Now Raul is set for yet another unearned olive branch ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s planned visit to Cuba later this month.
It speaks to the depth of the desire for political change in Cuba after more than half a century of dictatorship that Raul Castro has been able to cast himself as a reformer – a deceptive image that the popular press has been happy to endorse. Castro for his part has fueled the hype of progress with token reforms intended to mask how little has fundamentally changed in Cuba.
The Cuban government’s supposedly more tolerant treatment of political dissidents is a case in point. In December, in a gesture clearly intended to smooth the way for the pope’s visit, Raul won plaudits for releasing 2,900 political prisoners. But that politically calculated pardon did not extend to hundreds of other prisoners who continue to rot in Cuba’s jails. Among these prisoners is an American, Alan Gross, a Maryland native who was arrested by the Cuban government in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for “crimes against the state.” Gross’s “crime”? Distributing laptops and helping Cuba’s Jewish community to connect to the Internet. Raul Castro has since admitted that Gross was not a spy, as the government had claimed. Nonetheless, he remains in jail.
Raul’s symbolic prisoner release also cannot obscure the fact that the government persists in its brutal crackdown on political dissent. Harassment of and violent attacks on political protestors is routine, and grim is the fate of those who fall into the clutches of the state police. Last May, Cuban dissident Juan Wilfredo Soto died several days after being arrested by Cuban police. According to his family, his death was brought on by beatings he suffered during his detention. Indeed, for many political prisoners, a stint in Cuba’s jail is tantamount to a death sentence. Political activist Wilmar Villar Mendoza was beaten and arrested last November after participating in an anti-government protest, then sentenced to four years in prison for the crime of “resistance.” The 32-year old died this January. Orlando Zapata Tamayo, another political prisoner, went on a hunger strike to protest his prison beatings. He died this February. Raul, not quite living up to his reform persona, blamed his death in the United States.
If political freedom remains viciously suppressed, the state of religious freedom is similarly imperiled. In February, government-organized mobs harassed and threatened dissidents who had sought safety in churches. In one incident, the archbishop of Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city, had to intervene to help evacuate 14 women dissidents who had take refuge in a basilica because of reports that police were waiting nearby to beat them. The women were members of Ladies in White, which consists of the wives and relatives of jailed political dissidents. Nor can Cubans’ freely practice their faith. Despite the pope’s forthcoming visit, Cuban dissidents say that they are barred by police from attending mass and many are arrested on Sundays to keep them from going.
Raul’s economic reforms also fall short of credible change. Small-scale privatization efforts have led to optimistic suggestions that Cuba is pursuing the Chinese model of merging communist rule with a free-market economy, but even that seems to be an overstatement. The Cuban government has allowed some limited private enterprise and legalized self-employment in some 180 low-skill professions. But absent a true free market, access to the supplies and credit necessary to run a business remains a major challenge. Not surprisingly, most employment still comes from the government. Despite some cuts in the public sector, the government still accounts for 80 percent of Cuba’s jobs. It’s true that Cuba now allows more economic freedom than at any time since the introduction of communism, but that is a low benchmark for meaningful reform.
While Raul Castro has successfully sold himself as a reformer abroad, the consensus among many Cubans is that nothing will change as long as the Castro brothers remain alive. It would be a shame if the pope’s trip serves to give added legitimacy to a regime that continues to trample on the freedom of its people.