The communist regime of Cuba, in an apparent attempt to curry international favor, has announced it will pardon 787 common criminals in response to Pope Francis’s call for mercy towards the imprisoned. There is no indication any of these are prisoners of conscience, as Havana officially denies the existence of political prisoners.
Reuters cites the Cuban propaganda outlet Granma as confirming the release. The newspaper noted that no one convicted of murder, rape, child abuse, and drug trafficking was eligible for release and that the Cuban government “took into consideration the characteristics of the acts for which they were sanctioned, their conduct as they served their sentences, and the time left on their sentences.”
None arrested for their rejection of communism appears to be on the list, however. Reuters consulted the independent organization The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which monitors politically-motivated arrests, and they denied knowledge of any political prisoners receiving amnesty.
There is no public list of the individuals set to be released, making it difficult to confirm that Cuban officials are actually releasing these prisoners. If released, however, the group will consist of hundreds of common criminals who now owe the Cuban government for their freedom, who can be easily activated to participate in mob attacks on political dissidents when threatened with a return to prison.
The Vatican took this announcement at face value, as it has with all statements from the Cuban government. “We’re very happy with this decision by the Cuban state,” Reuters quotes Dionisio García, president of the Cuban Bishops’ Conference, as saying.
“It is an opportunity for these people to be rescued… in an opportune moment to review sentences, and for them to feel stimulated to recover their freedom,” he added, according to the Argentine newspaper La Nación.
It is not the first time that Raúl Castro appeared to commit a kind act to impress Pope Francis. In September 2015, shortly before Pope Francis’s arrival in Cuba, the Cuban government announced that it would free 3,522 prisoners. While Pope Francis was on the island, however, Cuban police arrested over 250 political dissidents. One of those arrests, that of activist Zaqueo Báez, occurred in front of Pope Francis; Báez was beaten and dragged away after yelling the word “freedom” in front of the pope. The Vatican later denied the existence of this incident.
When asked about political prisoners in Cuba on his flight back to Rome, Pope Francis said, “There are some countries and also some European countries where you cannot make a sign of religion.”
Cuba made a similar overture to the United States in 2015, releasing 53 individuals even Havana described as prisoners of conscience. When the press attention subsided, Cuban police began to round up and detain these individuals once again. Since then, Castro has denied the existence of political prisoners on the island.
“What political prisoners?” Castro said in March, responding to a question about human rights from Cuban-American CNN reporter Jim Acosta. In response to this incident, President Barack Obama, in Havana for a “historic” visit in which he enjoyed a baseball game with Castro, said he had not provided Castro with the names of those behind bars for their commitment to democracy. Independent organizations — the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba — did release their own lists, however, proving Castro wrong.