CUBA | ANALYSIS
Is Raul Castro taking risk in church talks?
Raúl Castro's negotiations with the Catholic Church have sparked hope,
but recognizing the church as a mediator is uncharted territory.
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
Raúl Castro's talks with the Catholic Church on political prisoners have
sparked hopes, skepticism and assertions he's taking a risk by
recognizing the church as a mediator in Cuban affairs.
The meetings with Cardinal Jaime Ortega are the first time in memory the
communist government has negotiated with a national, independent
organization like the Cuban church, on an island where authorities try
to control virtually all activity.
They also represent Castro's most important political shift since
succeeding his ailing brother, Fidel, two years ago. The meetings also
have given added weight to a church that the state has kept on a short
leash throughout most of the past five decades.
Castro has promised to move some political prisoners in poor health to
hospitals, move other jailed dissidents to institutions closer to their
homes and eventually release some of Cuba's estimated 190 prisoners of
While the local church has long decried Cuba's problems, ``what is new
is the government's readiness to publicly recognize the Cuban Catholic
church as a middleman for resolving key issues,'' Havana dissident Oscar
Espinosa Chepe wrote in a column Monday.
Fidel Castro freed 3,600 political prisoners after 1978 negotiations
with exiles, and about 300 dissidents and common criminals after Pope
John Paul II's 1998 visit to Cuba. He also released a few to visitors
such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
Now his brother's meetings with Ortega have raised hopes for an
improvement in Cuba's human rights record, too. But there also have been
accusations that the cardinal is being manipulated by Raúl Castro to
give a propaganda boost to what may amount to meager changes for
Some analysts are also cautioning that Castro is taking a risk because
his talks with Ortega may put his government on the slippery slope of
political concessions and embolden dissidents, average Cubans and even
government officials critical of his slow pace in adopting economic reforms.
``The government is tacitly recognizing with this gesture that it will
definitively accept the risks of thinking differently,'' said Julio
Hernandez, a Miami supporter of dissident Oswaldo Payá's Christian
``When the authorities recognize any sort of independent source of
power, they are admitting a weakness,'' said a Havana author who asked
to remain anonymous to avoid possible retaliations for his comment.
Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute think tank in
suburban Washington, noted that Havana in the past has gone over the
heads of local church officials and negotiated directly with the Vatican
on issues such as permission to open new seminaries.
`A NEW SPACE'
The Castro-Ortega talks, he added, ``mark the government accepting the
church as a part of civil society. . . . I don't particularly see any
risk [for Castro] in it, but it is opening up a new space for political
discussions on topics that were not open before.''
Brian Latell, a retired CIA Cuba expert, noted that the church-state
talks come at a time when Castro faces a crushing economic crisis as
well as a wave of international condemnation for Cuba's human rights
record. On Raúl Castro's watch, jailed dissident Orlando Zapata died
Feb. 22 after a hunger strike and there has also been a crackdown on the
Ladies in White protesters.
But Latell added that Ortega was unlikely to push too hard during the
conversations with Castro.
Espinosa Chepe, one of the 75 dissidents jailed in the 2003 roundup
known as the Black Spring but freed for health reasons, said Castro's
readiness to ease conditions for political prisoners could help improve
Cuba's relations with Washington and the European Union.
``It's clear that President Obama favors better relations with Cuba . .
.. but he has been blocked by the lack of reciprocity,'' he wrote. If
some political prisoners are freed, ``that could make it easier for the
administration to take additional steps.''
In Washington, a State Department spokesperson said Monday: ``We've seen
the optimistic prognosis [for the political prisoners] and are looking
forward to seeing what concrete steps the Cuban government will take. We
have urged the Cuban government before to release its prisoners of