JON LEE ANDERSON ||| Slow Change in Cuba

JANUARY 12, 2015Newyorker

Over the past few days, Cuba has freed fifty-three political prisoners. Benjamin Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, hailed the release of the first thirty-eight on Friday on Twitter. “The United States welcomes the substantial and ongoing releases of prisoners in Cuba – so good to see people reunited with their families,” he wrote. Rhodes was deeply involved in the secret talks that led to the December 17th announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would normalize their diplomatic relations. The eventual release of the fifty-three prisoners was part of the agreement.

In another sign of the ongoing détente, the State Department last week announced that Roberta Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, will attend talks on immigration on January 21st and 22nd in Havana. The topic is a safe one, but Jacobson’s presence will give the meeting symbolic heft, and it will serve as a precursor to Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Havana, which can be expected to happen in the near future. At his end-of-the-year press conference, President Obama said that he himself hoped to visit Cuba “in his lifetime,” joking that he expected to be able to do so, since he was still “a young man.”

Today, Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the United Nations, lauded the prisoner release but noted that it does not resolve the larger human rights problems on the island. Despite Power’s criticism, and much sharper remarks by the agreement’s opponents, among them Florida Senator Marco Rubio, there seems be an understanding in Washington that change will come slowly in Cuba. The restoration of relations with the United States is only the beginning of a long process. On December 20th, days after Cuba’s kumbaya moment with Washington, Raúl Castro reaffirmed his government’s commitment to Communism, and said that the United States must “respect” its choices. In other words, this was not glasnost.

Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 3.31.38 PMThere have already been some attempts to test what the agreement will now permit. On December 30th, the performance artist Tania Bruguera attempted to hold an open-mic event, for participants to speak about the changes they hope to see in Cuba, in Havana’s Revolution Square. Bruguera, who had requested and been denied permission to hold the event, was arrested and released the next day, along with a handful of dissidents who had joined her. When Bruguera tried to hold a press conference on the Malecón, Havana’s seaside promenade, she was detained and released again. Bruguera reportedly has been told that she cannot leave Cuba for two to three months while a legal case is pending against her for disrupting the public order. However, she has not been dealt with as harshly as previous protesters. Perhaps this is a sign of the changing times. The U.S. State Department expressed its “deep concern” about the arrests “of peaceful civil society members and activists,” but has gone no further, for now.

Cuba’s small but vocal community of critics and dissidents will continue to challenge the state. Some of the newly freed political prisoners announced their intention to resume their protests as soon as they were released. Our freed prisoners are committed to continue fighting for the democratic Cuba we all want, José Daniel Ferrer, the leader of Unión Patriótica de Cuba, a grassroots pro-democracy organization that counts many of the released prisoners as members, said.

Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 3.37.48 PMAt the end of last week, there was further evidence that, in many respects, Cuba won’t be rushed. Fidel Castro, who turned eighty-eight last August, and who has not been seen in public for a year, was reported to have died, for the umpteenth time, on the Twittersphere. The first reports may have been the result of confusion over the death, a week ago, of Fidel Castro Odinga, the son of a prominent politician. The rumor was amplified by Cubans in Miami, and, by Friday, major news organizations were reporting the rumors and updating their prepared obituaries. In Cuba, there was official silence, however, and by day’s end the hysteria had subsided. (In a final twist, this afternoon the Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, who is close to Fidel Castro, appeared on a Venezuelan state television channel, smiling and brandishing a letter that he said he had just received from Fidel—proof, he said, that Castro is alive and well.)

When the old man goes, it will be probably be something for his family to announce, not Tweeps in Miami, or anywhere else. Everything in its own time.