Progress, though not enough, in Cuba

At least one life saved. Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas ended a hunger strike following the announcement that 52 political prisoners would be freed from jail under a deal Spain and the Roman Catholic Church negotiated with the government of President Raul Castro. The agreement came too late for Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a prisoner of conscience who died in February on a hunger strike protesting mistreatment, but just in time for the 48-year-old Farinas. A psychologist and journalist, Farinas was seeking the release of other political prisoners. He stopped eating a day after Zapata Tamayo died, and had been fed intravenously at a hospital since March and recently suffered life-threatening complications.

Of course we welcome the release of the dissidents, who were arrested during a government crackdown in the spring of 2003, even as we question why the Cuban government needs three to four months to free them, and why the prisoners apparently must trade jail for exile. Furthermore, Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, has identified another 115 political prisoners who will not be released. That may be fewer than at any other time since the 1959 revolution, as Sanchez says, but it is still unacceptable.

So too are the laws and lack of due process that landed the dissidents in jail, and the conditions in which they are held. The prisoners are critics of the government, not violent plotters. And it’s too easy for the government to refill the jails; that’s what happened the last time it freed scores of detainees, following Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to the island. As Amnesty International stated in a report published last month, “Those who voice views beyond those permitted by the authorities continue to be intimidated and harassed, arbitrarily detained or imprisoned after unfair, often summary, trials.”

Zapata Tamayo’s death was an international embarrassment for Cuba, and Castro clearly wanted to avoid a repeat with Farinas. Moreover, he wants Europe to relax its Common Position on Cuba, a 1996 policy that makes normalization of relations contingent on advances in human rights and democracy. The Spanish government argues that engagement is more productive than confrontation, and we agree. That’s why we urge the U.S. Congress to pass a bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee last week to repeal a ban on American travel to Cuba and weaken other Cold War sanctions. It should do so not because Cuba deserves it, or has earned it by freeing 52 prisoners, but because the 50-year-old trade and travel prohibitions have failed to bring about democratic change in half a century.