The news has been wild in Cuba over the past month, and has kept getting wilder on Christmas weekend. The government announced release of 2,900 prisoners, while excluding many from the list. It has also been arresting numerous people, preventing dissidents from visiting other hunger-striking dissidents, and preventing residents from attending church on Christmas.
Arrests seemed to ramp up in preparation for the Miami-based Cuban exile group’s flotilla, which would shoot off fireworks in International waters, visible from Havana. Was Raul’s government really so concerned about the effect of the flotilla or were they only concerned that the dissidents were being more vocal than usual in anticipation of it? The government tried to put the outspoken ones away, out of sight, before the activity. And it tried to put fear into people. I spoke to an inner-city resident two days after the flotilla, and he said everybody in the neighborhood was afraid. The Committee representatives had told them boats were coming to shore, and they should stay indoors. They didn’t know what the boats coming to shore were expected to do, but their interest was quelled.
Then, on the eve of the human rights fireworks, the Damas de Blanco, (Ladies in White) protested in front of their recently deceased leader’s home. They were suddenly outnumbered by an angry group of pro-government protesters. Then a group of Damas de Blanco were arrested, put on a bus, and apparently sent back to their own provinces if they weren’t legal to be in Havana.
Some well-known protesters have been on hunger strikes. Others who went to visit were prevented from doing so, and then arrested. Sometimes the arrests are short; sometimes they are violent. There are reports of beatings in jail. Hunger strikes, arrests and harassment of dissidents, and similar chilling activities are certainly not new. But they seem more prevalent now than usual.
Well-known dissidents are never sure what is going to happen to them. They regularly complain about harassment. The government watches, intimidates, counter-protests, and imprisons. On December 19, it was stated that 388 dissidents had already been imprisoned in December.
Then, in the past couple of days, Raul announced that 2,900 prisoners would be freed. People questioned why. They speculated that it was in preparation of the anticipated visit of the Pope, some time shortly before Easter. Several issues are raised by a review of who is being released, and who is not. It was implied that the release would free dissidents and political prisoners. But the list seems to include a number of prisoners who were sentenced for crimes other than political, like petty theft, burglary, etc. Is it going to be like the Mariel boatlift, which was at first thought of as a positive step, until the U.S. government said Castro sent away a number of undesirables. A look at the list of prisoners not eligible for release reflects terrorists and those guilty of espionage. One wonders whether the “crimes” of dissidents may fall within a loose definition of terrorism. Most likely, Alan Gross’s alleged crimes fall within the realm of espionage.
The Alan Gross question goes even further. Some thought that if political prisoners were part of the crowd being released, Alan Gross would be among them. We don’t really know what he did, or what he is believed to have done, but it certainly sounds innocuous if he simply delivered satellite phones to Jewish residents so they could communicate with their families. The Cuban government says he was working for the U.S. government. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t. His family has just finished appealing once more for his release.
It is said that Alan Gross is a pawn for return of the remaining four of five Cubans imprisoned in the U.S. Some reports indicate that the Cuban government has specifically discussed such a trade. So, is that the idea? Is the Cuban government looking to grab a few more Americans? With all the new tours and family travel by Americans, should Americans be worried about what they might say or do? Could the jails be emptied to fill them up with pawns for a larger game? Could an inadvertent hello to a known dissident put a visitor in prison for fifteen years or so?