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Published: Wednesday, 5/7/2008

Elusive reform in Cuba

IN FEBRUARY, Cuba saw a monumental change: Fidel Castro officially stepped down from his 49-year rule as president. But at least one subsequent incident makes clear that if the country wants to see reform, it will have to do more than simply change its head of state.

After all, the new administration is not all that new. Mr. Castro was replaced by Mr. Castro - that is, Raul Castro, his younger brother, who has been second-in-command since 1965.

On April 21, 10 women, dressed in T-shirts bearing the photos of their husbands, all of whom are political prisoners, staged a demonstration in a park next to Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion, near Cuba's government and Communist Party headquarters. Members of a group called the Ladies in White, they are seeking the release of their husbands. On that day they demanded to meet with Raul Castro before they would agree to leave the park.

Instead of meeting with them, Mr. Castro dispatched 20 female police officers to round them up. The demonstrators held fast, though, and the officers needed several extra government workers to drag the Ladies in White onto a bus that hauled them away.

Not that anyone would expect dramatic political reform from a new Castro-in-Chief, but this kind of intolerance of even a nonviolent protest makes a hypocrite of the new Cuban president.

First, Mr. Castro stated during his inaugural address, "This society is undoubtedly full of justice and everybody in it has the opportunity to express their views." Second, just days after Mr. Castro was "elected" president, his foreign minister signed two international human rights treaties, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The agreements commit Cuba to respect basic rights like freedom of expression and association.

Amnesty International says, however, that Cuba has at least 58 "prisoners of conscience," making it one of the most repressive governments in the world.

If Mr. Castro truly believes in justice and human rights, he should honor his word. He should meet with the Ladies in White, release Cuba's political prisoners, and apologize to the families terrorized by political oppression under either Castro.

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