Cube releases 3,522 prisoners prior to papal visit
Last week, Pope Francis embarked on two consecutive visits, arriving first in Cuba and
then traveling to the United States. While both places widely welcomed the Pope’s presence,
individuals in Cuba and the United States alike have noted a divergence between his discourses
in both countries. In his speech to Congress, Pope Francis reported that he would not avoid any
controversial issues, a statement which seems to contrast with his inattention to issues in Cuba,
such as the weekly arrests of dissidents and the fact that, out of the 3,522 inmates released before
the Pope’s arrival, no political prisoners were included.
Among those political prisoners is artist Danilo Maldonado, commonly known as “El
Sexto,” who is famous for his performance “Rebellion on the Farm” in which he painted Fidel
and Raul Castro’s names onto pigs and released them in Central Park, Havana. Maldonado was
actually to be released as a peaceful political prisoner but his release was canceled because the
prison lost his papers.
The Pope’s neglect to call out the constraints on political and personal freedoms in Cuba
came as a disappointment to conservatives and liberals alike. Where he openly stressed the
United States’ responsibility to pursue the common good, particularly addressing issues such as
immigration and climate change, his silence on human rights issues in Cuba came as a surprise.
He did, however, openly call for Cuba to grant more religious freedom and highlighted
the healing properties of peace and reconciliation, the former perhaps referring to the recently
reestablished relationships between Cuba and the U.S. – a relationship very much facilitated by
the Pope himself.
“In their everyday rhetoric, the [Cuban] government claims that they do not have political
prisoners because they are instead mercenaries paid by the U.S. government,” said Alejandro
Benedí, a Cuban-American and father of thesis student and Catalyst staff writer Bianca Benedí.
Benedi said that one possible reason for Cuba not releasing any political prisoners is the potential
to use them as a negotiation card. Regardless of the reason, the government’s incarceration of
political protestors has frustrated many Cubans and Cuban-Americans.
The Pope’s silence on the matter of the political prisoners not receiving pardon was
disappointing for many dissident groups and sharply contrasted with what he said en route to the
United States: “Speaking clearly, life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty, it is like being
there dying every day, without the hope of liberation.”
Professor of Spanish Sonia Labrador-Rodriguez, whose research concerns Cuba in the
19th century, used to visit Cuba every summer until the Florida law denying state funding for
travel to Cuba passed in 2006. Labrador-Rodriguez commented on the release of prisoners prior
to the Pope’s arrival, the third time such a mass release has occurred before a papal visit to Cuba.
“Well, it gives the impression to the outside world that they are acknowledging the
significance of the event of the Pope coming to Cuba from the point of view of a public relations
image,” Labrador-Rodriguez said. “Some people call it a ‘cleaning of house’ in the sense that it
doesn’t cost a lot to Cuba because what they are doing is also solving the problem of keeping a
lot of people in jail,” she added. Indeed, Cuba’s prison population remains high at an estimated
60,000 to 70,000 out of the country’s population of 11 million.
“I mean, you know, the U.S. is a country with the single largest incarcerated population
so if the Pope said anything maybe it should have been here,” Professor of International
Relations Nat Colletta said. “I don’t think he oversteps his boundary, he’s a moral leader not a
Labrador-Rodriguez explained her own thoughts on why the Pope may have been so
subtle in his address to Cuba. “Many people are discussing this in the media and I agree with the
analysts who are saying that he had to be very careful with what he said because he doesn’t want
to jeopardize the fragile atmosphere of communication between the U.S. and Cuba,” she said.
“There is hope that things will start getting resolved as a result of that dialogue and interaction
between Cuba and the United States.”
“The people in Cuba see the Pope as a bridge for a better future if U.S. and Cuban
relationships materialize as expected,” Benedí said. “But in South Florida we [Cuban-
Americans] are better informed, there has been too much forgiveness from the Pope and people
feel as if ignored basically.”
The Pope’s reluctance to mention issues of political freedom in Cuba still came to the
dismay of many, if only because of recent circumstances. Last May, Cuba met a record-breaking
month in political arrests after the number of such arrests rose 70 percent from February to
March alone. The Cuban government’s treatment of the organization Damas de Blanco (Ladies
in White) is particularly relentless. The women in this group are arrested every week during their
Sunday after-mass marches calling for the release of their husbands, sons,] and fathers.
Berta Soler, the leader of the Damas de Blanco, was quoted as saying, “What I would tell
the Pope is that political violence against people who want to participate or exercise their liberty
in public assemblies must stop.” The views of Soler were never communicated to the Pope,
however, as many of the group’s members were prevented from attending the Pope’s mass or
arrested at the mass for approaching the popemobile.
When asked about this incident and whether he would have met with the Damas de
Blanco, Pope Francis replied “I like to meet with all people. I consider that all people are
children of God and the law. And secondly, a relationship with another person always enriches.”
“Let be honest, it’s very difficult to visit a country and criticize them in their home,”
Benedí said. “That would obviously create issues and it is his goal to unite people, not stir the
pot. One thing people didn’t like though was the Pope’s visit to Castro’s house. They say there
was no need. Why visit the person responsible for the persecution of so many? People have not
forgotten what Fidel Castro represents.”
Information for this article was taken from theguardian.com, phillyvoice.com and