Europe Shouldn't Normalize Relations

Sunday, October 24, 2010
By recently banished Cuban political prisoner Juan Adolfo Fernandez Sainz in The Wall Street Journal:

Free Cuba

Europe shouldn't normalize relations with the Castro regime until it transitions toward real democracy.

The Spanish government believes that by releasing a few political prisoners, Cuba has now made enough advances in human rights and democracy to allow the European Union to normalize relations with the island. Madrid couldn't be more wrong.

Although I was one of the lucky ones to be released and to arrive here in Spain with 38 other former Cuban political prisoners, my home country remains under the stern grip of an oppressive regime. Let me tell you the stories of some of those brave dissidents still left behind.

Among the many victims of the 2003 crackdown on regime critics is Felix Navarro Rodriguez, who was sentenced to 25 years in jail. I knew him for a long time as a peaceful oppositionist with great popular roots in his village, where he had been a high-school principal. We met again in Canaleta prison, where I was serving a 15-year sentence for my fight for democracy. He never even considered leaving Cuba. His daughter, Sayli Navarro, was expelled from university as a further punishment for his "crimes."

Another Castro victim is Arnaldo Ramos Lauzurique, an economist sentenced to 18 years in jail. At 68 he is the oldest of all the 75 dissidents imprisoned in 2003. He has always said that he wants to die in Cuba. His old and fragile mother is still awaiting his release.

Or consider the fate of Pedro Arguelles Moran, who is 62 and was sentenced to 20 years for his work as an independent journalist. We were both in Canaleta prison, but never in the same section. He suffers from cataracts and when we met at the dining hall, always separated by iron bars, he would recognize me first by my voice. He says no one will ever get him out of Cuba.

Felix, Arnaldo and Pedro are three out of 12 political prisoners who have decided to remain in Cuba. The Cuban regime says it will release all the remaining political prisoners from the group of 75, even those who have no intention of leaving Cuba after being freed. But so far they all still remain in jail.

I respect the mediation of the Spanish government. Partly thanks to Madrid's efforts, I am free today. But the fact that a group of us are now in Spain when a couple of months ago we were in prison, does not mean that the Cuban dictatorship has fundamentally changed.

We were unjustly jailed and arbitrarily condemned in a sham trial with no real access to defense counsel. (I saw my lawyer only once for five minutes just before the hearing.) We were given very harsh sentences—on average almost 20 years—for our peaceful and civic opposition. Searches of our homes produced no weapons, and nothing we wrote contained any incitement to violence.

We were kept under inhuman conditions, in overcrowded cells that we had to share with common criminals. We were locked away far from our families—in my case 777 kilometers from Havana—which, given the difficulties of transportation in Cuba, imposed an additional, cruel punishment on my loved ones.

Spain wants to normalize relations with Cuba because Havana quasi-banished us, with no documentation recognizing that we had been set free, when we should have never been sent to prison in the first place. Even if all political prisoners had been freed in Cuba and given the opportunity to decide their own fate and to continue their struggle in Cuba for democracy and for human rights, it would have been merely a first step. It would have been an indispensable but not sufficient condition to determine that Cuba has started its transition toward democracy.

Until the Castro regime repeals all its laws violating human rights, allows multi-party elections, free trade unions and independent media, and lets Cubans participate fully in our economy and travel freely, any attempt to normalize relations with Cuba would be premature.

By giving the Sakharov Prize last Thursday to Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas, who has spent 11 years in jail as a political prisoner, the European Parliament has made a clear statement that the struggle for freedom in Cuba is far from over. What should be on the negotiating table is not a token group of political prisoners, but a real prospect for a democratic Cuba.

Mr. Saínz is a journalist and translator who, in the spring of 2003 was sentenced to 15 years in prison for exercising freedom of expression. Since last August he resides in Spain.