A Little History on Cuban Prisoners

Fernando Ravsberg

Muralla Street in Havana. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, July 15 — The announced release of Cuban political prisoners takes my mind back to the spring of 2003, when journalists crowded outside the courts to try and find out any bit of information about what was going on inside.

But to tell the truth, to understand what was happening requires going a little further back in time, to the activities of the new US diplomatic representative [in Havana]; and even a bit earlier, to the arrest and trial in Miami of a network of Cuban agents.

As has been told, the arrest of members of the Red Avispa (the Wasp Network) took place thanks to information that the Fidel Castro himself ordered given to the FBI.  His hope was that this would be used against anti-Castro groups that were carrying out terrorist activities against the island.

Instead, American authorities used that information to identify the Miami-based Cuban agents (who had procured the information) and to arrest them. Most of the detainees struck deals with the prosecution, however five of them refused to bargain and were sentenced to harsh prison terms.

For a while, the Cuban government entered into discreet negotiations [with the US] hoping to reach of an extrajudicial agreement, similar to the one recently obtained for the Russian agents.  Nonetheless, Washington came down hard on the Cuban operatives with the full force of the law, going so far as to allow their trial to be held in a venue as biased as Miami.

The situation of these five Cuban prisoners was the sharpest reflection of the deterioration of relations between the two countries.  In 2003, James Cason appeared at the US diplomatic mission in Havana, unquestionably the most scandalous and sordid in all the heads that have passed through the United States Interest Section (USIS).

A few days ago, I read that declassified documents clearly prove that his mission was to instigate the breaking off of the already minimal diplomat relations between Cuba and the US (which were limited to the Interests Office, created through negotiations between Fidel Castro and Jimmy Carter).

Cason’s first action was to begin meeting with Cuban dissidents even before formally presenting his credentials to the island’s Ministry of Foreign Relations – breaking all rules of protocol.  What’s more, this was done not only in Havana, but also in the provinces.

Soon after, the Cuban state launched a massive operation against those dissidents, accusing them of being mercenaries who received money from the US government.  Criminal proceedings began against seventy-five of them, a figure that by no coincidence was a multiple of five.

Several of the most well-known opponents, such as journalists Nestor Baguer and David Orrio, revealed themselves as having been Cuban government agents who had infiltrated the dissident movement.  They appeared before the court as the principal witnesses for the prosecution.

That confrontation marked a high point. I remember that agent Odilia Collazo —who had been a recognized opposition leader up until that moment— told me that she didn’t feel sorry for the convicted because “they didn’t have second thoughts either,” about asking the US to maintain its economic embargo against Cuba.

As some people began to think that these arrests had to do with the situation of the five Cuban agents imprisoned in the USA, I directly posed that question to then Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, though he denied it flatly.

Time goes by, however, and almost everything “declassifies.”  Immediately after officially assuming the presidency, Raul Castro offered a prisoner swap with the US.  This willingness was expressed through the first foreign visitor who subsequently came to Cuba – the Pope’s envoy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Washington turned down the exchange and President Raul Castro was left to figure out what to do with those prisoners.  Internationally they were recognized as prisoners of conscious, and the campaign for their release was intensified soon after the death of a man who had been on a hunger strike.

There are those who believe that the Cuban government freed the prisoners under the pressure of protest activities by the “Ladies in White” and a second hunger striker, this time by Guillermo Farinas.  Others, though, are of the opinion that the release was the product of tripartite negotiations, and still others say that it was a unilateral decision by Havana.

No matter who’s right, what’s certain is that the releases benefit everyone – firstly the prisoners and their families. But Madrid has also strengthened its bargaining position in Europe, and the Catholic Church has reaffirmed itself as a privileged interlocutor.

For his part, Raul Castro has consolidated his relationships with Spain and the Vatican.  In addition, he has made a key gesture at a pivotal moment: as the European Union has shown willingness to review its policy towards Cuba and the US Congress is discussing a law that would authorize American tourism in Cuba.

An authorized  Havana Times translation of the original published by  by BBC Mundo.

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