Of course, the Castro brothers have fooled plenty of reporters and political figures in the past. Last summer, for example, then Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos proclaimed the dawning of “a new era in Cuba,” citing the government’s announcement that it would release 52 jailed dissidents. Unfortunately, Moratinos, who helped broker the prisoner release, was confusing a PR stunt with real liberalization. The Castro regime has always used political prisoners as strategic pawns. Its 2010 announcement was aimed at convincing the European Union to adopt fully normalized relations with Cuba and persuading the U.S. Congress to lift its travel ban (if not the entire American trade embargo). As Havana began “liberating” the prisoners, it forced them to leave the island and accept exile in Spain. One dissident — Julio César Gálvez — told the Associated Press, “Our departure [from Cuba] should not be seen as a gesture of goodwill but rather as a desperate measure by a regime urgently seeking to gain any kind of credit.”
Likewise, the changes announced at this month’s Party Congress should not be seen as the start of “a new era in Cuba.” The Castros are desperate to secure financial assistance, fortify CCP control over the Cuban population, and bolster their historical legacy. They are not offering fundamental reforms to the post-1959 Communist system. Those reforms are still a long way off, judging by the ascension of Machado Ventura and Valdés. Cuban officials fervently want the world — and especially the United States — to believe that their country is changing. But the economy remains closed, government repression remains severe, democratic activists remain in jail, and the Communist Party remains in charge. Free elections are nowhere on the horizon, and journalists are still tightly censored. Meanwhile, the regime continues to hold USAID contractor Alan Gross, who has been languishing in a Cuban prison since December 2009. Last month, Gross was sentenced to 15 years behind bars. He committed no actual crime, other than attempting to help various Cuban Jewish groups with Internet communications.
His imprisonment is an ongoing travesty. It provides further evidence that, for all the naïve optimism of some foreign observers, Cuba hasn’t really changed.