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Columns

Prisoner’s Dilemma

All eyes are on Burma, but watch out for Cuba’s dissident release

By Alexander R. Konrad

This weekend, happy scenes met the release of an important political prisoner in defiance of a controversial political regime. If you read news headlines, you probably know the name: Arnaldo Ramos Lauzurique.

Actually, that may not be whom you expected. The number one name this weekend in high-profile releases has not been Lauzurique, but Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese voice of democracy and public figure who has spent most of the last 20 years in dentention. Aung San Suu Kyi has always been a national figure in Burma (which the current regime and some media outlets refer to as “Myanmar”) as her father, General Aung San, is Burma’s founding hero.

A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi is an international voice of cooperation and democracy who has drawn comparisons to Nelson Mandela. World leaders have praised her release; President Obama called her a “hero.” In China, the main ally of Burma’s military junta, Aung San Suu Kyi’s release received minimal coverage but was at least acknowledged. Her release must have significance in China, given the recent firestorm over the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese political prisoner Liu Xiaobo.

On the face of it, the importance of Arnaldo Ramos Lauzurique’s release cannot compare to that of Aung San Suu Kyi. One is a potential peacemaker and state leader, known throughout the world. She speaks magnanimously and with a calm and presence that led The New York Times to describe her demeanor as reminiscent of a “motivational speaker.” Meanwhile, the other freed prisoner, Lauzurique, is a near septuagenarian with no great legacy of democratic speeches; no crowds swarmed him on his release. His wife spoke for him, saying that they were happy to be reunited and would remain in Cuba, as they are too old to emigrate elsewhere.

So Lauzurique may not have a Nobel in his future, and he certainly won’t be providing sound clips showing a well-known “characteristic buoyancy” as Aung San Suu Kyi does. Yet his release should not be lost in the buzz from Burma. Lauzurique is the first prisoner in Cuba to reject freedom through exile and be released by the Cuban government in any capacity. While many of the 52 prisoners who were offered the breakthrough deal left the country, Lauzurique was one of 13 who refused the deal.

The Cuban prisoners had been in custody since 2003 after a government crackdown. In September, I wrote about the potential new direction of Cuban policies made possible by a revitalized, internationally conscious Fidel Castro. The decision to release Lauzurique to his home in Cuba will not be immediately emulated, as another of the 13 has agreed to leave for Spain. But Lauzurique’s situation is a strong sign that Cuba is moving forward with its release of all political prisoners, a key step in the country’s forward progress.

Unfortunately, the same promise is not immediately evident in Aung San Suu Kyi’s release in Burma. While her freedom is a victory for democracy, analysts have tempered their optimism: It seems that Suu Kyi’s release reflects the confidence of the military junta more than it does its willingness to reform. There are still thousands of political prisoners in the state, and the regime may be confident that it is well funded and strong enough to shoulder any new pressure from Aung San Suu Kyi. Her own lawyer has cautioned that her movements may be restricted, and while she seems free, for now, to give public addresses (at least as long as she espouses her willingness to work with the junta), there is a significant difference between public addresses and practical changes.

If the government in Burma is willing to work with Aung San Suu Kyi, her release will have had an enormous effect. But for now, beware the overstatement of any release caught up in the news cycle. There is a conveyor belt for the process—the BBC updates a profile piece of the public figure, while journalists reach out to the leaders of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States for comment. Whether the leader knows of the dissident or not, their flacks have them call the person a “beacon” or, for the less creative ones, a “hero.”

If excitement in Burma proves justified, the upside of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release is enormous. Thinking cautiously, however, it seems a safer bet that Lauzurique’s release represents part of a trend. Expect Cuba to continue to release prisoners and move toward democracy. In Burma, democracy’s greatest voice is now free. But we will have to wait to see if the move is anything more than lip service.

Alexander R. Konrad ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column runs on alternate Mondays.

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