Fidel Castro may have looked weak and confused at times during his TV appearance this week, but the rare prime-time address by the former Cuban leader had the desired effect: He managed, for a day, to recapture the media spotlight and demonstrate that he was lucid enough to be aware of his government's promised release of 52 political prisoners. Most of the attention afterward was spent commenting on the softball questions he was asked and his apparent decision to trade in his olive fatigues for a tracksuit. But sartorial issues aside, the reappearance of Cuba's octogenarian revolutionary (an oxymoron if there ever was one) sent a strong signal to Cuba watchers that the prisoner release does not herald a softening of policy under the rule of his brother, Raul Castro.
This leaves Washington in a quandary. Last week's release of the 52 prisoners -- independent journalists and human rights activists rounded up in the March, 2003 Black Spring crackdown -- may have reduced the number of political prisoners rotting in Cuban jails to the lowest level in decades, but it was still, at best, a superficial act. Restrictions and state control over freedom of association and expression remain and there are still scores of prisoners being held for the inventive and uniquely Cuban offense of peligrosidad -- "dangerousness" -- often used to round up opponents under vague accusations of espionage. In addition to the now-estimated 120 political prisoners held in Cuban jails, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross, arrested in December for distributing laptops and cell phones to Cuba's small Jewish community, remains in prison without formal charges brought against him.
Given this, it would be a mistake for Washington to overreact, engaging Havana with open arms over what was, in effect, a publicity stunt by the Castro brothers. On the other hand, intentionally antagonizing the regime by ramping up demands or dismissing the gesture would be equally damaging.