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Cuba to release 3,522 prisoners on the eve of Pope Francis’ visit; why can’t Obama do the same?

September 17, 2015

by the International Committee for Peace, Justice and Dignity for the Peoples

Just prior to the visit of Pope Francis to Cuba on Sept. 19, the Cuban government has announced the release of 3,522 people being held in the country’s jails. This humanitarian gesture will include prisoners who are over 60 years of age, younger than 20, those with chronic illnesses, women and those who are close to their release dates.

Recently released dissidents Aide Gallardo and Sonia Garro hold the Cuban flag during a march in Havana Jan. 11, 2015, when Cuba freed 53 prisoners. – Photo: Reuters

Recently released dissidents Aide Gallardo and Sonia Garro hold the Cuban flag during a march in Havana Jan. 11, 2015, when Cuba freed 53 prisoners. – Photo: Reuters

Why couldn’t Obama follow the Cuban example before Pope Francis continues on his tour to the U.S. on Sept. 22? The United States, which has the dubious distinction of having the largest per capita prison population in the world, is overflowing with people who are primarily incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, on drug charges, or being mentally ill and poor. Of the 2.5 million people in jails and prisons in this country, a vastly disproportionate number are people of color.

As the Obama presidency winds down, with nothing to lose, he could do the right thing by releasing an equal percentage of the prison population as the Cubans did. Now that would be a humanitarian gesture that a war torn world could appreciate and a gesture of peace with justice to the visiting Pope. It would amount to the freedom of tens of thousands of people.

Obama could start this process by releasing political prisoners like Black activist and writer Mumia Abu Jamal, whose health is in rapid decline from untreated Hepatitis C. He could begin some reconciliation with the Native American population by releasing American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier, who just yesterday spent his 71st birthday in prison. And he could release Oscar Lopez Rivera, the Puerto Rican independence activist who has spent 34 years in prison on conspiracy charges.

As Cuba prepares for the papal visit, a worker replaces a message featuring Fidel Castro with another welcoming Pope Francis on a billboard. – Photo: Reuters

As Cuba prepares for the papal visit, a worker replaces a message featuring Fidel Castro with another welcoming Pope Francis on a billboard. – Photo: Reuters

A call to release the prisoners held by the U.S. on the island of Cuba at Guantanamo comes from the Hugo Chavez International Foundation for Peace, Friendship and Solidarity based in Sierra Leone, saying: “It is crucial at this juncture that the U.S. government release all people who were kidnapped and have been held as prisoners at Guantánamo since Jan. 11, 2002. We demand also that the U.S. government close down its infamous torture center at Guantanamo and hand the territory back to Cuba with no conditions attached.”

This is an important moment for human rights, and it will be taken up in a panel as part of the Days of Action against the blockade of Cuba in Washington, D.C., Sept. 16-18. Along with talking about other political prisoners in the U.S., Jan Susler, the lawyer for Oscar Lopez, will be speaking. Also advocating for the freedom of Oscar Lopez Rivera will be the legendary fighter for Puerto Rican independence, Rafael Cancel Miranda.

See the schedule of activities for Sept. 16-18.

The International Committee for Peace, Justice and Dignity for the Peoples can be reached at P.O. Box 22455, Oakland CA 94609 or info@theinternationalcommittee.org. The Hugo Chavez International Foundation for Peace, Friendship and Solidarity can be reached at 53 Caritas Drive, Allentown, Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa or hugochavezfoundation@gmail.com.

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