Celebrating Raúl Rivero's release from prison.

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Dec. 1 2004 6:40 PM

Free at Last!

What Raúl Rivero's release from prison means for Cuba.

Good news! A little more than two months ago, on Sep. 24, I published in this space a loud boo directed at the movie The Motorcycle Diaries because of its celebration of Che Guevara. And I pointed to an alternative hero of Cuban freedom, Raúl Rivero, an opposition journalist and a marvelous poet. In 2003, Rivero was sentenced to 20 years of prison on the charge of having conspired with the United States.

Last Friday, Rivero was transferred to a military hospital. And, on Tuesday of this week, he was suddenly released. Free at last!—free from prison, anyway. He was liberated together with five other Cuban dissidents from the group of 75 who were imprisoned last year. (Seven others had already been freed.)

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Why were these new prisoners released just now? The immediate reason appears to be a diplomatic change of attitude in Europe. Spain's last prime minister, José María Aznar, took a hard line on Castro, beginning in the 1990s. The European Union as a whole adopted Aznar's position and launched what became known as the "Cocktail War." The Cocktail War meant that, at diplomatic receptions, governments began inviting Cuban dissidents to attend, together with Cuban officials. This sort of thing communicated a European disapproval of Cuban policy and a European respect for the Cuban opposition. The Cocktail War didn't prevent European businesses from investing in Cuban tourism, which means that the Cocktail War was not exactly a heavy bludgeon raining down on the poor battered head of Fidel Castro. And yet, it did communicate a spirit of condemnation.

Aznar was voted out of office last March, however, and his successor, José Luis Zapatero, reinaugurated friendlier relations with the Cuban state. Zapatero's initiative was followed by that of the European Union, just as Aznar's had been. Europe is friendlier now. And Castro appears to have rewarded the new policy by releasing Rivero and the five other dissidents.

Here is a victory, then, for the bad cop/good cop approach toward Cuba—the bad cop having been Aznar, and the good cop, Zapatero. And here is a victory for the people who, especially in Europe, have made a cause of Rivero's case and that of the other dissidents. Here is a victory for Václav Havel especially—Havel, who, after his retirement from the presidency of the Czech Republic, has taken up the cause of Cuban freedom. Just a few weeks ago he organized an international meeting in Prague to pressure for the release of the Cuban dissidents. And why shouldn't Havel engage in this campaign? For if there is a Václav Havel in Cuba, surely that person has got to be Raúl Rivero—the artist/politico with the wry and ironic view of the world.

Rivero wrote a poem called "Open Gift," which I happened to see in a very fine literary magazine published in Puebla, Mexico, called Crítica. The poem explains that the poet's friend Susannah has given him as a present a yearly almanac. The almanac comes from a cold and far-away country, and the information in it strikes the poet as somewhat preposterous and even funny. The book is full of facts about the hardships of winter. It explains when one should wear a warm coat, and when to prepare for fog—exotic arcana of no possible use for anyone who, like the poet, lives in the tropics. So, the poet contemplates this curious gift and chuckles at its uselessness. And yet he finds something touching in the almanac:

      Susannah's almanac
      makes me know as well
      with precision
      that sometimes
      my friends experience the cold
      and have to go out in the fog
      and the snow
      in the desolation of winter

Rivero's friends in other places around the world may live in free societies where people don't get thrown in jail for writing poetry and journalism. These faraway friends have nonetheless managed to understand that, in some places, life is a little more wintry. Havel has written that every meeting, every conference, every protest on behalf of the Cuban dissidents is a step toward freedom in Cuba. Apparently there have been enough of these steps to get Rivero and five other people out of jail. That leaves merely 62 other imprisoned dissidents to go, not to mention the cause of the independent librarians in Cuba (who have just now opened 14 new independent libraries—a bold thing to do), not to mention the cause of Cuban society as a whole.

Havel has been saying lately that Cuba's days as a dictatorship may be reaching an end. Is he correct? This possibility lends a tremendous drama to these struggles right now in Cuba. The poet, the librarians, the independent workers union that is sponsoring the libraries, the 62 dissidents still in jail—these people do not seem to have lost their energy. Only, how can we tell if Havel is right? We can't. Sheer guesswork. Still, let us recognize that some people do seem to have a pretty good insight into the mysterious question of when a dictatorship is about to collapse, and if Václav Havel is not one of these unusually insightful people, who is?

Paul Berman, a writer in residence at New York University, is the author of Power and the Idealists.

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