Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, has repeatedly said that for the Bush administration to carry out its program of returning Cuba to its capitalist past, the U.S. military would have to invade. The ensuing war, said Alarcon, would last for generations.

Cuba has characterized its defense strategy a “war of the whole people,” and to underscore its point, 4 million Cubans joined regular armed forces for a week of military exercises ending Dec. 19. Citizens gained familiarity with supply methods, command networks, and new weaponry, including artillery and anti-aircraft weapons.

One aim of the exercises, named “Bastion 2004,” was undoubtedly to send a message to Washington that it should not make the mistake of attacking the island nation.

Just six weeks before, 105 dissidents gathered at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana on the evening of Nov. 2, U.S. Election Day, to “vote,” just as if Cuba was the 51st U.S. state. Not surprisingly, 83 percent chose George W. Bush for president.

A few weeks later, the Interests Section put up an outdoor Christmas display with Santa Claus, reindeer, and more. A big number “75” materialized on the side of its building, with a prison cell replica set up nearby, to remind the world of the 75 so-called Cuban “dissidents” jailed in April 2003.

Court testimony at the time of the trials of the 75 showed that many were in the direct pay of the U.S. It turned out that 12 counterintelligence agents pretending to be “independent journalists” had joined the accused dissidents. They showed videos at the trials of U.S. officials handing out money, fax machines, computers, and household goods to the accused.

As if in reply to the U.S. ballyhoo about the dissidents, on Dec. 19, Cuban young people put up two large billboards facing the Interests Section, replete with images of prisoners being tortured, Iraqi children being held at gunpoint, and a swastika. Festooned about were words like “fascist” and “made in the USA.”

Tensions appeared to be heightening. But against this backdrop of posturing, provocation, and military preparations, some surprises were in the offing.

Cuba has released 14 of the dissidents over the past two months, ostensibly for reasons of health. Yet most of the released prisoners seemed free of obvious signs of disability and sickness. So why aren’t the “mercenaries,” as they are known in the Cuban press, serving out their jail terms?

Nothing has been said officially, but the prisoner releases may be related to Cuba’s efforts to improve relations with Europe that suffered in the wake of the dissident trials and jail sentences.

Former right-wing Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar had led the charge against Cuba. His successor, socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, is reported to have suggested to Cuban representatives at a recent Ibero-American Summit gathering that the release of Raul Rivero might pave the way for warmer relations with European nations.

Rivero, a journalist who wrote about the seamier side of Cuban life for Cuba Net and El Nuevo Herald in Miami, was among those recently released, perhaps not coincidentally.

At a Columbus Day celebration at the Spanish Embassy, Ambassador Carlos López Zaldívar advised his guests about the prospect of improved relations with Cuba. Cuban dissidents at the gathering then walked out en masse. This reflected a significant turnabout.

Spanish sources indicated Dec. 14 that the Advisory Committee of the European Union for Latin America has recommended that diplomatic sanctions against Cuba be suspended. If European foreign affairs ministers give approval in January, as is expected, then European nations will resume high level diplomatic visits to the island and aid for cultural and social projects in Cuba.

Surely friendship with Europe serves Cuba well, especially should U.S. hostility rise to the level of military action, threatened or real.