Cuba has promised the Catholic Church it will free 52 political prisoners, slashing the number it holds by nearly a third in what would be the communist-run island’s largest release of dissidents since Pope John Paul II visited in 1998.
Five would be released initially to go into exile in Spain, while the others would be freed over the next three or four months, said Havana’s archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
The deal followed a meeting between President Raul Castro, Cardinal Ortega and visiting Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.
“Today we announce with complete satisfaction that the objectives we have worked toward have been met,” Mr Moratinos said. A statement from the Spanish Embassy added: “This opens a new era in Cuba with hope of putting aside differences once and for all on matters of prisoners.”
Mr Moratinos then wrapped up his two-day visit, but did not take any freed prisoners back to Spain with him. He and Cardinal Ortega said they were not sure how long it would take for the first five prisoners to be released.
Human rights and opposition activists called the scope of the agreement a surprise.
“We were hoping for a significant release of prisoners, but not this,” said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
Cardinal Ortega said those to be released were all members of a group of 75 leading political opposition activists, community organisers and journalists who report on Cuba in defiance of state controls on media. They were rounded up in a crackdown on dissent in March 2003.
Some of the 75 original prisoners had previously been freed for health reasons or after completing their terms, or were allowed into exile in Spain. But 52 have remained behind bars – most serving lengthy prison terms on charges of conspiring with Washington to destabilise Cuba’s political system. All are now seemingly poised to go free.
Cardinal Ortega refused to divulge which five prisoners would be released first, or how they were chosen, saying he could not do so because some of their relatives had yet to be notified.
According to a report released this week by Mr Sanchez’s group, the number of Cuban political prisoners has fallen to 167, the lowest total since Fidel Castro took power on New Year’s Day 1959.
If the agreement holds, that number would drop by nearly another third.
It would also be the largest group of political prisoners freed since the government released 299 inmates in a general amnesty following the pope’s visit 12 years ago.
Of those, about 100 were considered held for political reasons.