IN ANNOUNCING the normalization of relations with Cuba last month, President Obama violated two pledges he had made: to link such a liberalization to “significant steps toward democracy,” including the freeing of all political prisoners; and to consult with Cuban civil society, including pro-democracy activists, on the change. In what looked at the time like a partial recompense, the White House announced that the Castro regime had agreed to free 53 detainees — or about half the number of political prisoners identified by Cuban human rights activists.
Now it’s becoming clear that Mr. Obama chose not to make even that half-step a condition for the broad relaxation of travel and economic restrictions he is granting to Havana along with the normalization of relations. As of Wednesday, three weeks after the U.S.-Cuba accord, Cuban human rights activists had reported only five released prisoners. On Thursday, Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez tweeted that the number had risen to 26. Meanwhile, however, the State Department was emphasizing that steps toward normalization — including the highest-level visit by a U.S. official to Cuba in a half-century — will go forward this month whether the promised prisoner release is completed or not.
The administration’s priority, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said this week, is the “direct dialogue” Mr. Obama believes will lead to better conditions in Cuba. “We’re not waiting to make progress on the other components,” she said.
Whether the regime fully delivers on its prisoner pledge may never be known. That’s because the Obama administration refuses to release the list of detainees it says it gave to Cuba or to provide its own accounting of how many have been freed. The Castro government has been equally opaque. While that’s a familiar response from a totalitarian regime, the administration’s stonewalling is harder to understand. Ms. Psaki offered the explanation that “we’re not looking to put a bigger target on Cuban political dissidents.” Yet the activists the State Department refuses to identify are already in prison; naming them could not make them targets, but it might ensure that they are freed as promised.
As we have said, we would favor a conditions-based engagement strategy to achieve Mr. Obama’s aim to “empower Cuban citizens to give them greater ability to promote positive change going forward,” as Ms. Psaki put it. But it doesn’t seem that Mr. Obama used America’s available leverage toward that end, and the results so far are the opposite. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a dissident group, reported that repression by the regime increased in December. It said at least 489 people were arrested for political reasons, including at least 70 who attempted to peacefully gather in a Havana park to talk about their hopes for the future. It recorded three new political prisoners, including the artist Danilo Maldonado, who was arrested in late December when he tried to stage a performance with two pigs he named “Raúl” and “Fidel.”
Were any of those latest detainees among those whose freedom was promised? Their families can’t know because the White House refuses to say. If they are on the list and the regime reneges on its commitment, the Obama administration won’t have to acknowledge it was cheated — and the normalization will go forward. Could that be the real reason for the secrecy?
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