The Cable

Two of America’s Neighborhood Foes Are Headed in Very Different Directions

As Cuba releases more than 3,000 prisoners ahead of Pope Francis's visit, Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro tries to silence his opposition.

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When it comes to getting up to speed on international human rights standards, two of the United States’ longtime communist foes are headed in very different directions. On the one hand, Cuba said Friday it is releasing 3,522 prisoners — one of the biggest amnesties since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Meanwhile, Cuba’s main supporter, Venezuela, is cracking down on dissent against the regime of President Nicolás Maduro ahead of December elections.

Cuba, now led by Fidel’s brother Raúl, is releasing the prisoners as a goodwill gesture ahead of Pope Francis’s visit next week. The Castro regime did the same in 1998, before Pope John Paul II visited the island, and in 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI stopped by.

Castro’s decision to let the prisoners go got mixed reactions from the Cuban-American community. South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said, “We should remember many of these prisoners should not have been in jail in the first place.” #CubaNow, an advocacy group that lobbies for change in Cuba, praised the move. “By any measure, the Cuban government’s decision to release over 3,500 non-violent offenders ahead of Pope Francis’ visit represents progress,” told the Miami Herald.

The release is the latest sign that Cuba is slowly trying to rejoin the mainstream international community. It now has full diplomatic ties with the United States thanks, in part, to Pope Francis, who helped facilitate talks between Havana and Washington. The United States is now in the process of lifting the economic embargo against Cuba, which has been in place since then Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy restricted U.S. exports to the island.

Meanwhile, in Venezuela, a key opposition politician, Leopoldo López, was sentenced Thursday to 13 years and nine months in prison. He was found guilty of inciting violence during protests in 2014 that left two people dead.

Both Secretary of State John Kerry and human rights groups condemned the sentence as politically motivated. They accused Maduro of trying to silence dissent ahead of a December election that could put the opposition in a majority for the first time in 16 years.

“The United States is deeply troubled by the conviction and sentencing of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. The decision by the court raises great concern about the political nature of the judicial process and verdict, and the use of the Venezuelan judicial system to suppress and punish government critics,” Kerry said in a statement Friday.

“This case is a complete travesty of justice,” added José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “In a country that lacks judicial independence, a provisional judge convicts four innocent people after a trial in which the prosecution did not present basic evidence linking them to a crime and the accused were not allowed to properly defend themselves.”

Maduro isn’t likely to cave in to pressure from Washington or rights groups. As Cuba shows, it can take decades of pressure to get strong-armed and strong-willed leaders to change their ways.

Photo credit: Yamil Lage/Getty Images

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