Byline: Patrick Symmes
With last Wednesday's announcement of plans to release 52 political prisoners who were arrested during a 2003 crackdown, Cuban President Raol Castro took his first major step away from decades of hardline policy. Under the deal negotiated with Cardinal Jaime Ortega of the Roman Catholic Church, five of the prisoners were to be released "within days," the church announced, and the rest within months, bringing the number of political prisoners in Cuba--once numbering in the tens of thousands--to fewer than 150, the lowest in the regime's history. A half century of repression appears to be ending.
At first glance Castro, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2006, might seem to have blinked in the face of a crisis. One of the regime's most charismatic critics, a 48-year-old Santa Clara psychologist named Guillermo Farinas, was four and a half months into a hunger strike, surviving on an intravenous lifeline. The Catholic Church stepped in to negotiate. On Thursday, with the deal all but sealed, Farinas declared his protest suspended and took his first sips of water.
But Havana has already turned the concession to quick advantage. …