If nothing else, President Barack Obama's state visit to Cuba has put on display the profound cynicism of its aging leaders and the cocoon of unreality and fawning obedience that surrounds them.
"Give me the list now of political prisoners to release," a rattled President Raul Castro replied to a questioner from CNN at a rare news conference. He was obliged to attend because it's the custom for American presidents on foreign visits to take questions, along with their hosts. Castro continued: "If there are political prisoners, they'll be free before nightfall."
If? How utterly shameless.
It's no surprise Castro was shaken. In Cuba, members of the hierarchy never have to face questions about the failures of the revolution or the authoritarian disregard for human rights that characterizes their regime. Not from the state-controlled media or from anyone else.
That's why Cuba's president was so taken aback by the question, and why he offered such an unwittingly foolish reply. It fooled nobody, but it amply demonstrated that Cuba's rulers are completely — almost comically — unprepared to respond to legitimate questions about their failed state. All they ever get is softballs.
Within minutes, cyberspace was buzzing with lists of political prisoners and detainees held in Cuba. There is one recent list compiled by the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, and another list from the Cuban American National Foundation. There is also a breakdown of arbitrary detentions in 2016, by province, compiled by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights.
Castro and his minions know the names of their victims perfectly well, of course. They also know the names of the dissidents their goons arrested on Sunday in yet another display — this one also broadcast worldwide for all to see — of how Cuba deals with opponents.
They are loath to admit that there are political prisoners because it would destroy the notion that Cuba is a workers' paradise that enjoys unconditional support from the Cuban people. The entire system is based on this lie. All but the most gullible believers can peruse these names and visit the Internet sites of human rights organizations to see and understand that Cuba is not just about cigars and mojitos.
No one can say whom Castro thought he was kidding in his testy exchange with CNN's Jim Acosta, but even Cubans in Cuba don't believe what they hear from their leaders. They're just waiting out the gerontocracy, knowing its time is nearing the end.
What average Cubans did find amazing, however, was that Cuba's president was forced to answer questions about the taboo topic of political prisoners. Man-on-the-street surveys by reporters found Cubans expressing shock at seeing Castro answering questions from reporters, including questions about human rights, or the lack of them, on the island.
The dramatic moment will have a salutary effect among the Cuban populace. Cubans have been beaten down by decades of repression. They finally had a chance to see their regal leader brought down to Earth by a reporter's question.
This possibly is what President Obama had in mind when he said greater exposure to the world would ultimately be good for Cuba and its political evolution. Putting Castro in the hot seat may not have been part of the original plan, but it's certainly part of the result.
REPRINTED FROM THE JACKSONVILLE DAILY NEWS