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Dressing Cuban Political Prisoners

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Before they were flown from Havana to Madrid last week, seven Cuban prisoners of conscience were taken from their stinking cells to a hospital where for three days they were screened, bathed and fed. Then, before they boarded the jet that would fly them to Spain, they were given strange new wardrobes consisting of slacks, long sleeved dress shirts and brightly colored ties. That ensemble may be standard in many parts of the world, but it is almost unheard of in the tropical heat of Havana. The message clearly was that these men were not being welcomed back into Cuban society. They were being exiled, their pasts erased.

"They gave us chicken to eat and we had air conditioning in the hospital," Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso, a 60-year-old independent journalist who was one of the seven who were imprisoned since the so-called Black Spring of 2003, told reporters. "It was as if they were trying to wash away in three days the whole seven years that they did not consider us real people."

The sudden release of the seven, which is expected to be followed by the freeing of up to 45 other political prisoners in the coming months, is being seen in some parts of the world as an attempt by Raúl Castro and the gang of old men who rule Cuba today to wipe away some of the stink that has settled on them in the months since one prisoner of conscience, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died in February while on a hunger strike to improve conditions for all political prisoners.

Tamayo's death aroused much anger and concern in all corners of the globe, and brought near universal condemnation (President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was an exception. He did not want to get involved in the internal affairs of another country, and defended Cuba's right to self-determination.) Make no mistake -- that external pressure was the principal reason the Castro government agreed to meet with Catholic Church leaders, who in the past had managed to secure the release of scores of political prisoners. As a result of the initial talks, some prisoners were moved to jail cells closer to their homes to facilitate family visits. And one very ill prisoner was released.

In early June, Spain's foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, arrived in Havana just as another political prisoner and activist, Guillermo Fariñas, was reportedly on the point of death from a prolonged hunger strike. The Spanish government had tried to push for an overhaul of Europe's policy toward Cuba during its recently expired tenure of the rotating presidency of the European Union. Since 1996, the EU has held a 'common position' toward Cuba that said improved relations depended on the Castro government offering greater guarantees of democracy and human rights. But the Spanish government has conceded that the approach accomplished little.

However three-way negotiations between Cuban officials, church leaders and Mr. Moratinos did result in the agreement to free 52 prisoners, which prompted Mr. Fariñas to end his hunger strike.

Spain's role in the release of the prisoners might seem to suggest growing influence by Cuba's founding nation. But if history is any indicator, that might not be the case. In the past, other nations, namely Canada and Mexico, have intervened in Cuba's domestic affairs only to be slapped down later by Havana. The underlying truth is that the Castro brothers have been using prisoner releases as bargaining chips since at least 1961 when they sent back more than 1100 warriors captured at the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Their first bid was 500 large farm tractors. But Fidel Castro quickly raised the ante to $28 million. In the end, the prisoners were released in exchange for $53 million worth of food and medicine.

What are the Castros looking for now? Five Cubans are being held in American jails on charges of spying, and the Castro brothers would very much like to have them back. Perhaps Raúl is hoping for Spain to intercede on his behalf when the European Union reconsiders its position on Cuba. Or maybe he hopes that such positive developments will encourage the U.S. congress to ease restrictions on American trade with Cuba, as a House of Representatives committee voted to do last month.

Whatever the Castros' motives, it is important not to lose sight of the deplorable conditions that are forcing Raúl Castro to become more responsive. Several hurricanes last year and a deteriorating infrastructure have hollowed out Cuba's rickety economy and made horrendous conditions there worse. In the same week the prisoners landed in Spain, a desperate Cuban man was picked up in the waters off of Florida after spending three weeks in a raft made of Styrofoam. He was emaciated, but happy to be free. The Cubans in Spain said they are refugees, and they are not free.

What will happen to the political prisoners who refuse to go into exile but insist on remaining in Cuba, as one of them, Dr. Óscar Elias Biscet, has already vowed. The Castros, who were exiled by dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1955, understand the benefits of ridding themselves of the dissidents, and the dangers of living with them. With the eyes of the world now watching for signs of real change, will they be willing to allow freed dissidents to remain in Cuba and re-enter society, or will their response be to also present them with long-sleeved shirts and ties?