WASHINGTON—You have to hand it to Fidel and Raul Castro. They are masterful tacticians. Whenever they have needed to diffuse pressure, they set tongues wagging with speculation about reform. By the time the ruse was exposed, another period of stability had set in. The recent announcement that 52 political prisoners will go free has spawned a whirlwind of conjecture. Are the brothers at it again?

The slow-motion release that began last week and will go on for months will liberate one-third of Cuba’s political prisoners, according to the Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights. These men emerged some years ago as a group of independent journalists. Together with an organization of librarians and some bloggers, they later embarked on an effort to bring to life a Cuban civil society. Not since the emergence of illegal human rights organizations and political parties had anything more encouraging happened. No wonder the Castros incarcerated 75 of them. What they did not anticipate was that the wives and sisters of the prisoners would jump to fame. With a campaign that got louder and bolder with every pogrom that busted their marches, the incredible Ladies in White gained for these heroes the attention of the world.

One day, out of the blue, a prisoner deployed the ultimate weapon—the hunger strike. The death of Orlando Zapata in February of this year changed the game. The decision by Guillermo Farinas to replace Zapata, and the announcement by others that they would follow suit if the second striker died, took the struggle to a level not seen since the anti-Castro guerrillas of the 1960s. Left-wing celebrities—a bellwether of Cuban affairs—expressed their disgust for the Castros, friendly democratic presidents shunned them (except for Brazil’s Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, who infamously called the prisoners criminals) and Spain’s socialist government confirmed that there was no hope that the European Union would lift the diplomatic sanctions. The economy, despite Venezuela’s subsidies, was stagnant, and Fidel Castro made sure, with intimidating columns from his sick bed, that the timid reforms his brother Raul had signaled he wanted were a nonstarter.

Then in May, Raul Castro began negotiations with the Catholic Church led by Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos joined later. The result was the announcement that the 52 remaining “Black Spring” prisoners would be released, and that Spain would take them and their families.

Other releases have lifted people’s hopes in the past. In 1969–70 about 1,300 prisoners were deported. In 1979, after a controversial negotiation with some exiles, 3,600 opponents were set free—and expelled. In 1998, Pope John Paul II’s visit was followed by the release of 40 men—and another mass deportation. Few regimes have played more deftly the sinister game of confining and torturing innocent persons in rat-infested jails only to win praise for using them as bargaining chips in subsequent negotiations.

A couple of things make this release potentially more meaningful, as some critics, including the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, have said. The fact that the decision was made by Raul, an admirer of the “Chinese way” pioneered by Deng Xiaoping, may signify something. The participation of the church, which has gained more recognition these past few days than in the previous half-century, is intriguing. And Ortega’s discreet trip to Washington to brief American officials suggests that Raul Castro is interested in some kind of arrangement with the United States. Ortega, in fact, stressed in his meetings that Raul Castro is serious about reform.

None of which guarantees anything. The safest bet is to assume that the Castros are—for the umpteenth time—taking one step back before taking two steps forward. Raul Castro’s insistence that the prisoners leave the island with their families means that he wants to get rid of the independent journalists and the Ladies in White—and abort the embryonic civil society they had painstakingly engendered. But it is not inconceivable, given Raul Castro’s bind, that the regime will attempt some reform in order to beef up the economy and ensure its survival after Fidel dies—a move that will require, if it is to generate international support and investment, a degree of political accommodation.

Not even Raul Castro himself knows whether reform will really occur. But one thing is clear: The “Black Spring” heroes and their Ladies in White have revealed to us, against all odds, that the Castros are not invincible. After 51 years, this is a soothing thought.