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When Dissidents Are Freed

A key barometer for the level of democracy in the world is the number of political prisoners, especially popular dissidents. China and North Korea take the prize, with thousands jailed just for their views.

But this week, two authoritarian nations, Cuba and Burma, each released their leading activists for democracy. Both nations have been under rising pressure by their regional neighbors to loosen up. It's a sign of how regions, along with the US and Europe, have learned to play a role in the post-cold war era to promote democracy.

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In Burma, the unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday was a signal that the ruling generals know their Southeast Asian nation of 42 million destitute people must not slip further behind. Without foreign investment and open government, Burma risks remaining a 19th-century country in the 21st century. That's a recipe for a repeat of the 1988 rebellion that led Ms. Suu Kyi to challenge military rule and then win an election in 1990 that the Army later overthrew.

But the release of a political prisoner does not ensure the dawn of democracy. Still, after 40 years in power, Burma's military has signaled a willingness to move toward elected government. Suu Kyi, daughter of modern Burma's founder and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has the clout with other nations to continue having aid and investment withheld until democracy is realized.

That may not be the case for Vladimiro Roca, who was Cuba's leading dissident before his arrest in 1997 for criticizing Fidel Castro's one-party system. The son of one of communist Cuba's founding fathers, his release came a week before a historic visit by a former US president, Jimmy Carter. It also comes after Mexico, once a Castro ally, and several other Latin American nations have cooled their ties with Cuba, demanding more human rights.

As Nelson Mandela once did, these two newly freed democracy fighters can help bring their nations out of isolation and negotiate freedom for their peoples.