CUBA: A Comment on the Cuban Government’s Release of Nearly 800 Prisoners

These are uncertain times for Cuba. The government is well aware of the risk of US-Cuba relations deteriorating under Trump.  Photo, (c),WikimediaThese are uncertain times for Cuba. The government is well aware of the risk of US-Cuba relations deteriorating under Trump. Photo, (c),Wikimedia

The Cuban government has announced in the state newspaper, Granma, that it has pardoned 787 prisoners. The decision came about as a result of calls from Pope Francis, whose “Jubilee of Mercy” finishes on November 20th.

The pardoned prisoners include women, young people and ill people. The government claims that they have been pardoned for humanitarian reasons. The government excluded from consideration those “convicted of murder, manslaughter, corruption of minors, rape, drug trafficking” and other major crimes.

There has been no explicit mention of any political prisoners being released. However, this would have been highly unusual. Raúl Castro vehemently rejected claims that the Cuban authorities were holding political prisoners earlier this year.

This is not the first time that the Cuban government has responded to the Pope’s calls for mercy. More than 3500 prisoners were released in anticipation of Pope Francis’ visit to the island in 2015. This replicated similar gestures made by the Cuban authorities ahead of previous papal visits.

Pope Francis and Raúl Castro. Photo (cc) Wikimedia, Calixto N. Llanes

Pope Francis and Raúl Castro. Photo (cc) Wikimedia, Calixto N. Llanes

However, the timing of these releases is too coincidental for them to simply be considered as “acts of mercy”. Recent events to Cuba’s north can help us to understand this decision more clearly.

While campaigning, the now President-elect Donald Trump was inconsistent on his policy with regards to Cuba (among a great many other things). However, in Florida, he played to the crowd and established that he would be repealing the détente that had been developed between the US and Cuba under Obama.

US-Cuban détente reached new heights with Obama's visit to Cuba. Photo (c) Wikimedia

US-Cuban détente reached new heights with Obama’s visit to Cuba. Photo (c) Wikimedia

Whether Trump follows through on this is another matter. Indeed, two of his key campaign promises (“The Wall” and repealing Obama Care) seem to have already been diluted by the reality of political compromise. However, his electoral victory and campaign pledges were clearly taken seriously in Cuba. The day after the US election, the Cuban armed forces declared it would launch five days of nationwide military exercises in preparation for “a range of enemy actions”. It is true that the Cuban military is usually vigilant. However, such extensive preparations have only historically taken place in response to heightened tension with the US. The exercises begin today, November 16th.

These are uncertain times for Cuba. The government is well aware of the risk of US-Cuba relations deteriorating under Trump, and the economic impact this might have on the island. Within this context, we can consider the Cuban government’s humanitarianism as a tactical resort to realpolitik .

By continuing to release prisoners, the Cuban government is emphasising the more open and progressive politics it has developed under Raúl Castro. It is also helping distance itself from the repressive elements of its past. This is helping Cuba integrate more fully into the international community.

We cannot be so cynical as to believe that the Popes “Jubilee of Mercy” had no influence over the Cuban government. However, it is important to recognise that Cuba clearly stands to gain from improving its international reputation. If Trump does in fact reignite hostilities between the two countries, then Cuba will have positioned itself perfectly to be perceived as the oppressed victim.

That is not to say that many did not already perceive Cuba as the victim of the US embargo. If Trump (who is already widely considered outside of the US to be an irrational xenophobe) were to increase tension with Cuba, then the Cuban “David and Goliath” state rhetoric would once again be legitimised.

President-elect Trump. Photo (cc) Wikimedia, Transition 2017

President-elect Trump. Photo (cc) Wikimedia, Transition 2017

If US-Cuba relations do deteriorate under Trump, Cuba will likely also have the support of the Pope, consistently one of the world’s most popular leaders. Pope Francis has played a crucial role in the US-Cuba reconciliation. The Cuban government’s efforts to fulfil certain human rights obligations during this period will have demonstrated to him their new, more forward thinking, approach to US diplomacy.

The Cuban government’s new openness and humanitarianism will not just influence its international perception.This modernisation could also allow it to consolidate its waning power at home. The US-Cuba détente has weakened the authority of the Cuban government, which was already struggling to maintain relevance and perspective in the 21st Century. Obama’s visits to the island and the thaw in relations undermined the government’s narrative of the “US Imperialist aggressor”. Obama was warmly welcomed, and perceived as having a genuine desire to forge a better future between the US and Cuba. This panicked the Cuban government, who throughout the process of reconciliation have tried hard to remind their people of the imperialist “yanqui” agenda.

Increased openness and acts of humanitarianism help demonstrate that the Cuban government is willing to reform, and modernise. This trend of modernisation has come as a welcome relief to many Cubans, who have grown tired of a government which they see as an antiquated bureaucracy.

If Trump repeals Obama’s progress, then the Cuban government may well be strengthened. The government’s narrative of US aggression will have been validated, and its tentative modernisation could buy it a new lease of life.

The pardoning of prisoners  is commendable, and shows the Cuban government’s willingness to compromise and appease international human rights bodies. Such gestures are only a small part of the government’s difficult process of modernisation. However, we should remember that these concessions are also good publicity for the Cuban government, both at home and abroad, as it prepares for the worst from President Trump.