After Cuba's Prisoner Release, What's Next for U.S. Policy?

Just hours after the Cuba political prisoner deal was announced, a civil society leader said to our delegation of Americans visiting Havana: "Fariñas won, Spain won, the church won, and Cuba won." Of course, he made no mention of the U.S. since we played no role.

Against the backdrop of 52 political prisoners being released from their confinement, an accounting of winners and losers may seem at best disrespectful. But this event contains hints about where Cuba, its most important actors, and our allies are heading, with or without the United States.

Earlier this year, human rights conditions in Cuba were deteriorating. One prisoner, Orlando Tamayo Zapata, succumbed after a hunger strike lasting more than 80 days. The Ladies in White, spouses and mothers of political prisoners, who had marched peacefully on Sundays for seven years in white dresses and holding gladiolas, were suddenly subject to insults and threats by pro-government crowds as they walked down the street. Guillermo Fariñas, a political activist, stopped eating after Tamayo died and dedicated his hunger strike to improving conditions and getting freedom for 26 of the most infirm political prisoners.

At that moment, Cuba's Catholic Church was positioned to help. The church has expanded its influence since Pope John Paul II visited the island in 1998. The church played a leading role in distributing relief following a devastating series of storms in 2008. The Vatican's Secretary of State was the first world leader invited to meet with Raúl Castro when he assumed Cuba's presidency.

Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega intervened with the government and won an agreement to stop the harassment of the Ladies in White. In May of this year, the Cardinal and the Bishop of Santiago de Cuba met with President Castro. Their dialogue moved quickly to the subject of political prisoners and produced the agreement on freeing the 52 -- a marvelous victory for the church.

As our observer suggested, this is also a victory for Spain. Spain has endured great criticism from hard-line allies in the European Union for trying to relax sanctions against Cuba and negotiating directly with Cuba's government. When the EU decides in September whether sanctions or engagement best vindicates its interests in seeing progress in Cuba, Spain can point to the prisoner release and the church's role as a model for moving forward.

Critics here and abroad, mainly defenders of anti-Cuba sanctions, see the prisoner breakthrough as little more than a Cuban tactic to preserve its communist system. But that misses much of the larger picture.

Raúl Castro was able to capitalize on a settlement that ended the Fariñas hunger strike, addressed a problem bequeathed him by his brother, sent a message to the U.S. about his intentions going forward, influenced the EU, and directly took on elements of the communist party and state bureaucracy who oppose changing the system -- and he did all of these things by talking to the Cuban Catholic Church, not a foreign power, so he was not capitulating to an outside force (read: the U.S.).

Then, to top it off, Fidel Castro was given a forum on Cuba's national television to make a foreign policy statement to show -- implicitly -- that he was still engaged and not disapproving of what his brother had done.

So how does this benefit Cubans more broadly?

A foreign diplomat said to us, "Raul is committed to economic reforms because he sees reform as the only way for the system to survive. He wants the island to live in harmony with itself. That is why they made the decision to free the 52." Another diplomat said, "there has to be national agreement to go forward (with reforms), and with the church becoming part of the consensus" that is more likely to occur. They see a link between improving human rights and economic conditions on the island for all Cubans.

Whatever Raúl's motivations, the result was clear. Assuming Cuba keeps its agreement -- and it has already started to deliver -- 52 political prisoners will be free.

Can our country add itself at this late moment to our Cuban friend's list of winners? After all, as ten successive administrations have done, the Obama administration has made action on political prisoners a core demand on Cuba's government. Yet, our reaction to the release so far has been lukewarm: "a positive sign, overdue, but very welcome," Secretary Clinton said.

If the right words fail us, perhaps President Obama will respond by dismantling more of the Cold War era sanctions that have never produced in 50 years what Cuba's Catholic Church accomplished in the last few days. If this decision by Cuba is not met by some concrete action by the U.S., it's hard to imagine why we'd be taken seriously as Cubans try and shape their future.