Since I wrote my last post, the terms of the prisoners’ release have become a bit more clear. Those who have chosen exile have already begun to depart. Seven arrived in Madrid on Tuesday. But multiple sources report that those who wish to stay in Cuba remain behind bars, and haven’t been told when they’ll be released. Many fear that they have been offered freedom on the condition that they enjoy it in exile.
Those who remain in Cuba will continue to fight, whether they remain incarcerated or not. But the series of events that led up to this moment illustrate how those who choose exile may have a pivotal role on Cuba’s future as well. After all, the government’s decision to release these men was not a direct response to pressure from the human rights movement on the island. Instead, it was a direct response to the international community that was outraged upon seeing the reports and video footage of the conflict that has been escalating on the island since mid-February.
Five years ago, the death of political prisoner and hunger striker Orlando Zapata, police brutality at the demonstrations of the Damas de Blanco, and the failing health of hunger striker Guillermo Fariñas might have gone unreported, or been silenced by the Cuban media. But Cuba’s bloggers (and their camera phones) have changed this. Once the world could see Fariñas’ emaciated figure on the 110th day of his hunger strike, or uniformed Cuban police officers harassing and dragging peaceful demonstrators through the street, the government had to act—if it chose to do nothing, the diplomatic and economic consequences would be too great.
It is unfortunate that some voices from Miami and Havana have decried those who have chosen exile. The international Cuban community and new media-based activists have illustrated the powerful influence they can have on events in Cuba, even when they’re doing it from across the Atlantic (and particularly from Madrid’s large and tech-savvy Cuban community.) While the role of activists and media in Cuba is imperative to this process, the response and mobilization of advocates off the island is just as important. As these men adjust to life outside of a prison cell, and to a new country, many will likely remain among the strongest advocates for change in Cuba. I do not defend the de facto forced exile that Cuba may be inflicting on these people, but if the events of recent months show us anything, it is that wired citizens can have a powerful impact on Cuba’s future, regardless of where they live in the world.