Where Are Cuba’s 53 Political Prisoners?

Monday, January 5, 2015
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal:

Where Are Cuba’s Political Prisoners?

Fifty-three of those jailed by the Castros were supposed to have been freed in the Obama deal.

Who and where are the 53 Cuban political prisoners that President Obama promised would be freed by Havana as part of a deal to liberate three convicted Cuban spies serving lengthy sentences in the U.S.?

I asked the State Department this last week. State referred me to the White House. White House officials declined to provide the list of names citing “concern that publicizing it would make it more difficult to ensure that Cuba follows through, and continues with further steps in the future.”

Bottom line: The U.S. government cannot confirm that they have been released and is not certain they’re going to be released, even though the three Cuban spies have already been returned.

A government official told me that keeping the names of the 53 quiet will give Cuba the opportunity to release them as a sovereign measure, rather than at the behest of the U.S., and that this could allow for additional releases.

In other words, the Castros are sensitive boys who throw despotic tantrums when their absolute power is questioned. Asking them to keep their word is apparently a trigger.

Mr. Obama was destined to have trouble changing Cuba policy. Nixon went to China. But “Obama goes to Havana”? That sounds like stand-up comedy. A man with some humility might have prepared for the challenge. Mr. Obama did not. Now, little by little, what he says he got in the “negotiations” seems to be evaporating while what he gave away appears reckless.

The U.S. president hasn’t gone to Havana, not yet anyway. But he did use the prisoner swap to announce that he plans to unconditionally open diplomatic relations with the military dictatorship, something that the Castros have long demanded. Count that as concession one.

He said he would ease restrictions on American travel to the island and make it legal to use U.S. credit cards and debit cards in Cuba, thereby boosting revenues for the military-owned tourism industry. That’s concession two.

His promise to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror sounded like he had already made up his mind. “At a time when we are focused on threats from al Qaeda to ISIL, a nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction,” Mr. Obama said.

That would complete the concession trifecta. Cuba still supports the FARC, the Colombian terrorist group, it got caught in 2013 trying to smuggle weapons through the Panama Canal to North Korea, and credible intelligence analysts say Cuba has provided Venezuela the technology it needs to falsify identities for Middle East terrorists.

If Mr. Obama is serious about selling U.S.-Cuba detente, a little less obfuscation would be nice. The U.S. has not confirmed the identity of the intelligence asset who it says had been in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years and was also traded for the Cuban spies. Mr. Obama said the Cuban, before his arrest, had supplied key information to the U.S. that led to the nabbing of those spies, as well as three others.

Press reports and intel experts I talked to say the “asset” is Rolando Sarraff. But a debate is raging in the intelligence community about whether Mr. Sarraff, who has not been heard from since his arrival on U.S. soil, is all he’s cracked up to be by Mr. Obama. Another possibility is that his résumé was embellished to cover up for what was essentially a trade of the convicted spies for Alan Gross, the U.S. Agency for International Development contractor who was arrested by Cuban state security in Havana in 2009.

Mr. Obama claimed in his speech that Mr. Gross’s release was a humanitarian gesture on the part of Cuba. That’s not believable. Almost from the day Mr. Gross was arrested, Havana made it clear that he would not be released until the Cuban spies were returned to the island. He was a hostage.

If the Castro brothers renege on their promise to free the 53 it wouldn’t be a surprise. But nothing in their history suggests they would want to keep the release a secret. On the contrary, going back to the days of Jimmy Carter , Fidel has always released dissidents as a propaganda tool to boost his image as a benevolent leader—even while he sends them into exile or only paroles them.

Most of the prisoners arrested in Cuba’s Black Spring of March 2003, for example, were shipped off to Spain when international pressure forced the regime to let them out. The regime boasted about it; the press and the Catholic Church reported it as a humanitarian gesture.

In the weeks since Mr. Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba, reports from the island say that more than 50 dissidents have been arrested, including the husband of the dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez. Most have been released but some remain in prison.

Don’t expect much outrage from Washington. Mr. Obama wouldn’t want to damage his newly reconciled relationship with the police state.