Cuba Political Prisoners

US Officials Call for the Release of Political Prisoners in Cuba

US Officials Call for the Release of Political Prisoners in Cuba

In April 2024, the US mission to the Organization of American States (OAS) launched a campaign in Miami, together with the US State Department and the Cuban American Bar Association, to call on the Cuban government to release its female political prisoners. There are currently over 1,000 prisoners in Cuba detained for political reasons, about one in ten of which are women, and these demands on the part of the Miami campaign constitute part of a larger effort to compel the Cuban government to grant them their freedom. 

US ambassador to the OAS Frank Mora expresses the campaign’s mission and desire to ensure and protect the political freedoms of the Cuban people. “The matter of releasing political prisoners is of the utmost concern to the US… We call on the government of Cuba for the immediate and unconditional release of those unjustly detained. We stand with the people of Cuba and call on the regime in Havana to allow its citizens to freely and openly express themselves.”

Many of the women currently imprisoned for political reasons were part of the July 2021 protests on the island, where Cubans took to the streets in dissent against the adverse living conditions they had been subject to under the country’s communist government. Despite the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC)’s mission to increase access and participation of women across all sectors of Cuban society, including politics, many women rarely exerted their limited political rights prior to the 2021 demonstrations, according to Karin Lang of the US State Department Cuban affairs division.

Even still, women played a central role in organizing and leading the resistance effort against the Cuban government’s suppression of people’s freedoms, says Enrique Roig of the Human Rights and Labor division within the Bureau of Democracy. Women have faced exacerbated punishment for their involvement in civil protests; in addition to the heightened risk of being subjected to gender-based violence, the 10 to 15 year sentences for many of these women spell disaster for their children and families for which they are the primary caretakers of their children and families.

Javier Alejandro Ley-Soto, president of the Cuban American Bar Association (CABA), reports that the association’s lawyers are representing 52 men and women who were arrested during the protests in July 2021, including mother of five Lizandra Góngora who was given a 14-year sentence for her participation. According to Ley-Soto, these individuals are subject to terrible conditions, barred from due process, and kept from reaching out to or hearing word from their relatives; previously released or escaped prisoners who spoke at the campaign conference regarded their treatment under Cuban captivity as subhuman

CABA petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an entity of OAS, with regards to the inmates in question. “We can’t turn a blind eye to these human-rights abuses,” said Ley-Soto and Daniella Levine Cava, mayor of Miami Dade. Cava went on to add that she “stands unequivocally with those speaking out in Cuba for their pursuit of freedom, specifically for these women who have risked their lives. We must support them.”

The release of political prisoners in Cuba has been a demand of American and European politicians for a while, but Cuban officials have refused to entertain any and all potential conversations on the matter thus far. Recent protests in Santiago de Cuba and other Cuban cities, sparked by the island’s scarcity of food, oil, and other essentials, have caused diplomatic tensions to spike, at least in the eyes of the public. 

The Cuban government has blamed the United States for these protests; according to Mora, “We’ve witnessed protests in Santiago related to the regime’s inability to provide even the most basic goods and services such as electricity, along with fuel and food.” He goes on to say that we as an international community “should not be surprised. The regime’s insistence on maintaining its antiquated, centrally planned and grossly inefficient economic system remains the culprit.” 

Despite these difficulties, and through an emphasis on the humanitarian benefits of freeing female inmates, the Cuban administration aims to create an opening for discussions in the future. Following a trip to Cuba earlier this year, the US State Department’s Special Advisor on International Disability Rights Sara Minkara claimed that Cuban authorities responded to her inquiries on the welfare of political prisoners with disabilities with “openness.”

If the matter of ensuring equal protections and civil liberties for the Cuban people under law were easy, it would have been resolved long ago. The debate between loosening and enforcing economic embargoes has been a long and arduous one, and those on either side are both aware of the complexities that come with such a policy decision and simultaneously convinced that the solution is just as simple as it seems. 

International policy makers, especially those in the US, should take careful care to review their country’s relationship with Cuba; the US in particular must reexamine its own long-standing embargo, evaluating its continued political effectiveness in a post-Cold War reality where the threat of communism is no longer as immediately concerning to much of the rest of the world as it once was. It must also evaluate the embargo’s economic effectiveness, considering both its relative laxness in recent decades as well as the substantial amount of funds the Cuban government receives from other parts of the world, namely the European Union. Despite these additional avenues for revenue, the Cuban government continues to accredit the US embargo for its financial difficulties and the strained living conditions of its people.

Due to Cuba’s historic reluctance to allow human rights organizations such as the Inter-American Commision on Human Rights to investigate within the island, the use of economic sanctions is among the only tools the international community has to incite change in the Cuban citizenry’s long-cruel living conditions and suppression of freedoms, despite apprehensions about the effect such sanctions could have on the already-starving Cuban population. Perhaps, once the kinks and blind spots have been resolved, an agreement similar to the one signed in Barbados last October could be reached between the US and Cuba as a plea bargain of sorts— political prisoners in exchange for reduced economic sanctions. 

While likely not sustainable in the long-term, this kind of arrangement could open the door to more forthcoming policy discussions and alleviate some of the diplomatic tensions that likely contribute to the detention of political prisoners in the first place. For women behind bars for political reasons, this could mean the difference between life and death for themselves, their dependents, and future generations of brave Cuban women fighting for freedom.

Such a move would have two major implications for both Cuba and the United States, should negotiations not fall through: it would signify a departure from the US’ decades-long strategy of economic pressure towards the island and its communist government structure, and it would effectively shift the responsibility onto Cuba’s government to make use of said departure to prove that it truly was the stringent embargo that kept its populace poor and hungry. 

Regardless of one’s stance on economic sanctions, they must at the very least be seriously considered from all humanitarian angles, in their own right as well as from a potential negotiations perspective. The matter of political imprisonment is just one of many factors that make life in Cuba disproportionately difficult for women on the island, and remedying their quality of life will require significant time, patience, and effort. 

 


Leah Lemus | Gender Rights Correspondent

Leah Lemus (she/her) is currently a junior at Seton Hall University majoring in International Relations, with plans to enroll in law school a year early and pursue a career in gender discrimination law. As the first-generation daughter of Cuban immigrants, her point of view has allowed her to see the blind spots in her field and community’s understanding of the overall Caribbean area’s distinct cultures and sustainability, and she has been highly interested in bridging the gap between the different perspectives for as long as she can remember. As a Gender Rights Correspondent for Latina Republic, Leah hopes to highlight the struggles as well as the triumphs of women and girls in the Latin American & Caribbean regions. In particular, she wishes to expand the existing pool of information regarding Cuban women and their efforts as advocates for change and prosperity in their communities; she strongly believes these efforts more often than not go overlooked, and is passionate about sharing their stories with the world.