The sinister dictators of Cuba, Fidel and Raul Castro, are getting a fair amount of good press for releasing a handful of political prisoners that committed no crime. A few things to keep in mind, for those celebrating the great “humanitarian gesture”—the one designed to head off Western criticism following the death of hunger strikers. The prisoners, all jailed for "political offenses," were allowed to leave prison provided they left Cuba—the cause for which they have risked their lives—and relocated to Spain. 11 prisoners were released to Spanish authorities, though many others refused to surrender their citizenship in exchange for their freedom. At a press conference in Spain, a small group of recently arrived dissidents urged the European Union to keep pressure on Cuba, noting that “their release was not a gesture of good faith but ‘a desperate action’ by the Cuban government.”
So how were conditions in Cuban prisons? According to this asshole at Harvard Law School's Criminal Justice Institute, the Cuban prison system is "far more humane than Western propaganda would have the uninformed public believe," nor do those lucky enough to be incarcerated "have to pay for their education, medical, dental or hospital care, or any other activities they experience." Imagine not having to fork over your $18 monthly salary for "activities" like beatings and the bi-weekly rotten food buffet!
In an interview with Bloomberg, recently-released prisoner Normando Hernandez Gonzalez explained what was wrong with all of this "Western propaganda" about prison conditions:
“The first month I spent in jail, I only ate eight times because the food they gave us was subhuman and so rotten that if you offered it to a dog, he’d turn away. For refusing to wear prison overalls, I was sent to a dark cell for 101 days without seeing the light of day. There wasn’t a single inch of my skin that wasn’t covered in septic mosquito bites. I was forced to sleep on the concrete floor with rats and cockroaches crawling over me.”
Incidentally, Gonzalez was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his association with the Camagüey College of Independent Journalists.
Miami Herald columnist Andreas Oppenheimer pooh-poohs talk of a “new era” from Cubans held hostage by the Castro brothers:
…[M]ost important, the Cuban regime is not even talking about modifying articles 72 and 73 of its criminal code, an Orwellian legislation that allows it to put people behind bars before they committed a crime on the mere suspicion that they may commit one in the future.
Nor is the regime ready to consider changing its law 88, which allows it to imprison people for writing anything that can be interpreted as critical of the government, or its various laws banning freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to travel within the country or abroad, independent unions, and political parties.
When I asked José Miguel Vivanco, head of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group's Americas department, whether Cuba's latest announcement amounts to a "new phase" in Cuba, he said: "We are obviously very happy for the prisoners and their families, but I am not going to congratulate a government for imprisoning people that shouldn't have been imprisoned in the first place."