By Thor Halvorssen
HAVANA, Cuba -- This coming Sunday a group of women, dressed in white and holding flowers, will walk quietly down the Quinta Avenida -- Fifth Avenue. They have done this every Sunday for the past seven years. Even during inclement weather and hurricane season, these unlikely demonstrators march, advocating for the release of innocent men held in Cuban government prisons. The Ladies in White, or "Las Damas de Blanco," is a group of wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers of political prisoners arrested in Cuba's "Black Spring," a government crackdown on dissent that took place March 18-20, 2003. Seventy-five independent journalists, librarians, and democracy and human rights activists were arrested and sentenced -- some to as many as 28 years in prison.
Last month, the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuba announced that it had brokered a deal with the Cuban government and some of the prisoners would be freed. At the time, 52 Black Spring prisoners remained in jail and were to be freed over the course of the coming months. Their release is a concession to unprecedented pressure on the Cuban government following a flurry of public relations disasters: first, the death of hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo; then the ensuing hunger strike of Guillermo Fariñas; and lastly the globally-publicized attacks on dissenters including world-renowned blogger Yoani Sánchez.
But their liberation is unquestionably a result of the non-violent action of the Ladies in White. Their peaceful protest has garnered worldwide attention and exposed the cruelty behind Cuba's carefully crafted international facade. "The whole world is awakening and removing its blindfold with regards to Cuba," says Laura Pollán who leads them. Pollán is resolute in how critical things are at this moment in Cuba and she emphasizes how important it is that nobody looks away.
In a documentary short filmed recently in Havana and released today by the Human Rights Foundation, the Ladies in White state that they will march, every single Sunday, until all of the Black Spring prisoners are free. "We will never give up," says Pollán.
The slow trickle of prisoners being released, however, is not a pardon, and is by no means, unconditional. Of the 26 prisoners freed since July, all have been banished to Spain, and one prisoner was exiled to the United States to receive medical treatment.
Although release from Cuba's notorious prisons is cause for celebration, especially for these innocent men and their families, it is not a sign that things are improving in Cuba. It is only the next act in the regime's cyclical and opportunistic show, by which every few years the dictatorial regime releases a few high-profile political prisoners in return for favorable editorials in the foreign media and praise from nostalgic "revolutionaries" around the world.
Under Cuban law, writing anything critical of the government is a punishable offense. In some cases it takes less than that: many are locked away under an Orwellian criminal code, for their "potential" to commit a crime. The Black Spring survivors may be leaving Cuba, but as the totalitarian legal system remains unchanged, their prison cells can surely be used tomorrow by a new crop of innocent individuals -- without trial and without ever having committed a crime.
The Black Spring prisoners are still criminals in the eyes of the Cuban government -- criticism of the Castro regime remains an unforgivable, treasonous offense. Their exile does not exonerate them, and were they given the chance to remain in Cuba, they would continue to be harassed and face further persecution from the government and its supporters.
At least 5 of the prisoners have refused exile from Cuba. They will accept nothing less than an unconditional release. They are willing to sacrifice their freedom and remain imprisoned to draw attention to the dire human rights situation there.
Just as the Ladies in White are an inspiring reminder of the peaceful struggle of dissidents in Cuba -- and the gains that can be made from persistence and audacity -- so, too, should the world be as equally determined to pressure Cuba toward a real transition to democracy, and respect for human rights. To achieve this requires far more than freeing space in Castro's gulag to make room for other innocent individuals.
The freedom granted to those who should have never had it robbed from them is a welcome step. But the heart of the problem remains: the Castro brothers' tyranny is no different and international actors mustn't be fooled into believing that Raúl is any less of a despot than Fidel. He has inherited his brother's house of tyranny, and has changed nothing but the window dressing. And the curtains aren't white. They're red.