Javier Galeano/AP
Cuban President Raul Castro

Castro Proposes Prisoner Swap

December 19, 2008 12:28 PM
by Isabel Cowles
Cuban President Raul Castro has proposed a prisoner swap in a "gesture of goodwill" that highlights his hopes of easing relations with the U.S. under an Obama administration.

Castro, Obama and the Embargo

Raul Castro has proposed a prisoner swap with the United States, in a “gesture of goodwill,” toward incoming President-elect Barack Obama.

Specifically, the Cuban president suggested releasing political dissidents in exchange for five convicted Cuban spies, Reuters reports.

"Let's do gesture for gesture," Castro told journalists while visiting Brazil.

The move highlights Castro’s hope that relations between the United States and Cuba will improve following Obama’s election.

This summer, Obama suggested easing certain restrictions associated with the Cuban trade embargo, in place since 1962. A spokeswoman told the AP that Obama felt worried that the embargo had a, “profoundly negative impact on the Cuban people, making them more dependent on the Castro regime, thus isolating them from the transformative message carried by Cuban-Americans."

Although Obama has since insisted that he would maintain the U.S. trade embargo as leverage to call for change in Cuba’s one-party state, he is also open to talks and maintains that he would ease restrictions on Cuban-Americans who travel back and forth to Cuba and send money to relatives living on the Island.

President-elect Obama has not yet commented on Castro’s proposal.

Background: Cuba eases restrictions

The recent gesture illustrates the continued easing of restrictions by the Cuban government: the lifting of certain consumer bans this spring was also evidence that the country was loosening traditional limitations on its citizens. 

For example, President George W. Bush announced in May that Americans would be allowed to send cell phones to Cuba.

Since Fidel Castro stepped down last February, his brother Raul has eased some of the consumer restrictions that categorized Cuba's strict communist regime.

Despite embracing the changes, President Bush has continued to insist on the Cuba embargo.

In response to Raul Castro’s initiatives, President Bush stated, “Cubans are now allowed to purchase mobile phones, DVD players and computers. … If the Cuban regime is serious about improving life for the Cuban people, it will take steps necessary to make these changes meaningful,” CNN reported.

According to the president, allowing Americans to send phones to Cuba would be a democratic measure, as it would allow Cubans to speak freely in public.

However, despite the many changes that loosened consumer restrictions in place during Fidel Castro’s reign, many Cubans felt that such consumer advancements wouldn't be as liberating as they appeared: changes to Cuban consumer culture have brought a mix of optimism and pessimism.

Some believed that Raul Castro’s efforts to allow Cubans more consumer goods were simply a ruse to suggest, but not actually implement, a more comfortable lifestyle: since the average Cuban earns about $17 per week, modern appliances remain out of reach.

“Suddenly, there will be a lot more people talking on the phone,” said one Cuban citizen. “But not much else will change.”

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