Leading article: Still waiting for freedom

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The Independent Online

The Cuban regime has a tendency to time displays of clemency to coincide with the arrival of important visitors. In this case the visit of Spain's Foreign minster to Havana has been accompanied with a decision to release more than 50 political prisoners.

We should be pleased that these individuals are going free. But at the same time, praise for Raul Castro's gesture needs to be tempered by the knowledge that not all the democracy activists jailed in a crackdown seven years ago are about to be let out. At least one will never walk free. Orlando Tamayo died on hunger strike in February. It's also worth asking why this has taken so long, and why the Cuban government has faced so little international pressure over its naked repression.

The answer, of course, is that in many parts of the world, Latin America especially, and on the left in the West generally, admiration for Cuba's David-and-Goliath struggle with the United States, and a feeling of disgust about the American blockade of the island, have created a degree of moral blindness concerning the regime's abysmal human rights record.

The brothers Castro have been good at playing up to foreigners' images of their country, as if there is little more to Cuba than bars once frequented by Hemingway, crumbling Spanish palaces, salsa music and warm memories of Che Guevara.

Cuba does indeed defy stereotypes about communist states as necessarily dreary and lifeless places. But it also remains a police state and its prisons still contain political prisoners, even if there are fewer now than in the past, according to human rights groups. There is neither a free press, nor freedom of expression nor freedom of association. The country has been waiting half a century for the free election Fidel Castro promised when he took power in 1959.

When these failing are pointed out, the Castro brothers' apologists invariably point to the country's free education and healthcare, as if the provision of social services and the denial of political freedoms naturally complement one another. This depressing notion needs to be vigorously countered.

None of this means we need excuse, let alone, support America's coercive tactics against Havana. Starting with the Bay of Pigs invasion, this policy has been utterly counterproductive. And the European Union is right to push to bring the regime in from the cold. But neither should we be naive about how far this regime still has to reform before it can join the community of free nations.