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A dictator blinks in Cuba Add to ...

Cuba's decision this week to liberate 52 prisoners of conscience is a welcome move, but doesn't necessarily signal a greater degree of political tolerance by the Communist dictatorship.

One hundred other dissidents, including journalists and community activists, languish behind bars, many of them rounded up in a March, 2003 crackdown on political opposition.

The release, brokered by Spain and Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Archbishop of Havana, is instead a limited, strategic victory. Five prisoners are expected to be freed imminently and fly to Spain, and the other 47 will be let go in the next two to three months, in this largest release of dissidents in a decade.

The announcement prompted high-profile hunger striker Guillermo Farinas, 48, to call off his fast, begun 18 weeks ago. Mr. Farinas, an independent journalist, was thought to be near death after a potentially lethal blood clot developed in his neck.

Cuba was internationally condemned following the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a prisoner of conscience who passed away on Feb. 23 after a 75-day hunger strike. His death set back Spain's efforts to lobby the European Union to relax its 1996 policy of linking economic aid to Cuba with human rights and democracy.

Mr. Farinas' own hunger strike was motivated by Mr. Tamayo's death and the plight of all Cuban political prisoners, and he quickly became a rallying point for human rights activists on the island, and abroad. Cuban President Raul Castro made it clear that if Mr. Tamayo died, it would be his own fault. But the government is obviously relieved to be spared this embarrassment, which it can ill afford in a time of economic challenge for the nation.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said the liberation of the prisoners is proof that dialogue is better than confrontation. It will, no doubt, prompt an improvement in relations between the EU and Cuba.

The prisoner release also underscores the growing importance of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba. Cardinal Ortega recently helped persuade authorities to lift a ban on marches organized by the Damas en Blanco, Ladies in White, a group of wives and mothers of political dissidents.

Yet there is still much need for reform in this one-party state.

There are justifiable fears that as long as "Cuba's draconian laws" remain in place, in the words of Human Rights Watch, new generations of innocent Cubans exercising their right to freedom of expression will take the place of those just released.

 

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