Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

The U.S. shouldn’t reward Castro regime with bad policy

The announcement that the Castro regime is prepared to release 52 prisoners of conscience has provoked a flurry of commentary as to its broader "meaning" for Cuba’s future. Others don’t care much what it means, they only want the Obama administration to "reciprocate" forthwith.  One would have thought that these sorts of Cold War-era political ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

The announcement that the Castro regime is prepared to release 52 prisoners of conscience has provoked a flurry of commentary as to its broader "meaning" for Cuba’s future. Others don’t care much what it means, they only want the Obama administration to "reciprocate" forthwith. 

One would have thought that these sorts of Cold War-era political prisoner releases would have long ago been consigned to the dustbin of history, but alas not so in Cuba, which has been frozen in time under the Castro brothers’ despotism for pretty much five decades.

Freedom for the prisoners is, of course, welcome for their sake and that of their families, but in the broader context it is meaningless as far as heralding a new dawn in Stalinist Cuba. The same laws and repressive apparatus that make it illegal to do anything in Cuba except praise the Castros are still in place and could be used again tomorrow to jail those very same prisoners who do not accept the regime’s "invitation" to leave the island.

The prisoner release is instead indicative of a regime increasingly desperate to change a very negative narrative that has developed over the past year. From the arrest of American Alan Gross for providing internet access to an apolitical civil society group, to the February 23rd death of dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo after a 75-day hunger strike, to increasing international recognition of the "Ladies in White" — wives and mothers of political prisoners who peacefully march in Havana on behalf of their husbands and sons (that is, when not attacked by government goons) — to the current high-profile hunger strike of dissident Guillermo Fariñas, the regime was clearly losing control of events and making it extremely difficult for the likes of Spain and other international enablers to preach accommodation and appeasement of the regime.

The regime’s decision to trot out an ailing Fidel Castro this past weekend is also part of this narrative-changing effort, as it tries to rally the international faithful while diverting attention from the misery it continues to foist on the Cuban people. The signal to the Cuban population couldn’t have been more overt: The Old Man is still around, so don’t get any ideas that any deeper changes are forthcoming.

As noted above, many critics of U.S. policy towards the Castro regime nevertheless argue that the prisoner release demands a policy response from the United States. Our "credibility" is at stake, they say. No, it isn’t. Rewarding the regime for a self-serving tactical maneuver that could be reversed at any time would be counterproductive and a waste of the leverage the United States does possess to push for fundamental reforms in the best interests of all 11,000,000 Cuban political prisoners.

The announcement that the Castro regime is prepared to release 52 prisoners of conscience has provoked a flurry of commentary as to its broader "meaning" for Cuba’s future. Others don’t care much what it means, they only want the Obama administration to "reciprocate" forthwith. 

One would have thought that these sorts of Cold War-era political prisoner releases would have long ago been consigned to the dustbin of history, but alas not so in Cuba, which has been frozen in time under the Castro brothers’ despotism for pretty much five decades.

Freedom for the prisoners is, of course, welcome for their sake and that of their families, but in the broader context it is meaningless as far as heralding a new dawn in Stalinist Cuba. The same laws and repressive apparatus that make it illegal to do anything in Cuba except praise the Castros are still in place and could be used again tomorrow to jail those very same prisoners who do not accept the regime’s "invitation" to leave the island.

The prisoner release is instead indicative of a regime increasingly desperate to change a very negative narrative that has developed over the past year. From the arrest of American Alan Gross for providing internet access to an apolitical civil society group, to the February 23rd death of dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo after a 75-day hunger strike, to increasing international recognition of the "Ladies in White" — wives and mothers of political prisoners who peacefully march in Havana on behalf of their husbands and sons (that is, when not attacked by government goons) — to the current high-profile hunger strike of dissident Guillermo Fariñas, the regime was clearly losing control of events and making it extremely difficult for the likes of Spain and other international enablers to preach accommodation and appeasement of the regime.

The regime’s decision to trot out an ailing Fidel Castro this past weekend is also part of this narrative-changing effort, as it tries to rally the international faithful while diverting attention from the misery it continues to foist on the Cuban people. The signal to the Cuban population couldn’t have been more overt: The Old Man is still around, so don’t get any ideas that any deeper changes are forthcoming.

As noted above, many critics of U.S. policy towards the Castro regime nevertheless argue that the prisoner release demands a policy response from the United States. Our "credibility" is at stake, they say. No, it isn’t. Rewarding the regime for a self-serving tactical maneuver that could be reversed at any time would be counterproductive and a waste of the leverage the United States does possess to push for fundamental reforms in the best interests of all 11,000,000 Cuban political prisoners.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.