Cuba’s Political Puzzle

This month the two most important political events occurred in Cuba since Raúl Castro became president four years ago – the announcement of plans to release 52 political prisoners and Fidel Castro’s first major public address since he fell ill in late 2006. On July 22, the Dialogue held a breakfast discussion on the medium and longer term significance of these developments and the role of the Cuban Catholic Church with Arturo López-Levy, currently a lecturer and doctoral candidate at the University of Denver and Lexington Institute vice president Phil Peters. López-Levy pointed to four unprecedented decisions taken by Raul Castro as a result of talks between the government and the Catholic Church, which include: allowing the “ladies in white” to march in exchange for a commitment not to include the “ladies in support”, the release of 52 political prisoners detained since the 2003 “Black Spring”, inviting the Catholic Church to be part of a dialogue on issues regarding political prisoners, and giving the Church much of the responsibility to communicate these decisions. The Cuban government, López-Levy said, “believes that its policy towards the political opposition is counter productive.” Moreover, the regime wants to build a domestic consensus with the Catholic Church and present this agreement to the International Community. Foreign governments will have to accept it as a sign of political opening or reject it at the risk of closing a potential channel for further liberalization. López-Levy linked the recent changes to three major crises faced by the regime: an unfinished leadership transition, a severe economic crisis, and a population that has grown impatient with the current pace of reform.  Throughout his presentation, López-Levy stressed the resurgence of the Catholic Church as the major actor in Cuba’s civil society and what he sees as a gap in the perception of human rights between Cubans and international circles. Residents of the island emphasize the need for economic reforms, the right to travel and own property while the international community accentuates on the need for political freedom. He concluded by adding that the recent political developments are a victory for the Cuban government, the Church and hopes that the US government will respond accordingly to entice the regime on the path of greater opening. Phil Peters pointed to three potential vectors of change in Cuba: the government efforts to reform the economy; the possibility that the Obama administration makes further changes in its policy towards Cuba, such as ending the travel restrictions; and the use of blogs by dissidents not only to disseminate information, but also to organize events and meetings. He also stressed the fact the ongoing dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Cuban regime is happening without foreign pressure. For him, “foreign involvement is the most surefire way to stifle progress” in the current talks. A handful of the 52 political prisoners may be able to remain on the island after their release, Peters said. This will be a very significant step that will test the Obama administration on how to best respond to positive developments in Cuba.

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