MEXICO CITY, Nov. 30 -- The Cuban government on Tuesday freed Raul Rivero, a prominent poet and journalist and one of five dissidents released from prison in the last two days in a move that appears aimed at smoothing relations with Europe.
"It feels good to be free, to be able to do things like make this phone call," an elated Rivero, 59, said in a telephone interview just after being released. Rivero said he was unexpectedly freed after serving 20 months of a 20-year sentence.
The jailing last year of Rivero and 74 other dissidents critical of President Fidel Castro's communist government severely damaged Cuba's relations with Europe, as it did with much of the world. But in recent days, Spain's new Socialist government has resumed official ties with Cuba and proposed that the European Union improve relations with Castro.
Osvaldo Alfonso Valdes, an opposition politician, was also freed Tuesday, one day after three other dissidents, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Margarito Broche and Marcelo Lopez, were released, all because of poor health. To date, 12 of the 75 government critics have been freed.
"They warned me that if I start doing the same things I was doing before that I could be sent back," said Espinosa Chepe, 64, an economist and journalist, also reached by telephone. Espinosa Chepe said he suffered from a liver ailment and was transferred to several prisons, including one where "the water is like mud, the food is bad and there are flies everywhere."
Many of the dissidents were accused of collaborating with the U.S. government against the interests of Cuba. Espinosa Chepe said he was never "an agent for any government. In fact, I don't agree with U.S. policy toward Cuba."
Relations between the United States and Cuba have rarely been worse since Castro took power in 1959. The Bush administration has tightened travel and economic restrictions, and Castro recently retaliated by banning the use of the U.S. dollar on the island.
In Washington, the State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said, "We continue to condemn the unjust incarceration of dozens of other prisoners of conscience in Cuba."
Laura Ines Pollan, whose husband, Hector Maseda, is one of those still in prison, said, "There is so much international pressure right now, I think they will free them little by little."
Rivero, the best known of the jailed dissidents, had called for the release of prisoners of conscience and criticized news reporting by Cuba's state-run media as a "fiction about a country that does not exist." Early this year, he won the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize.
The poet, who suffers from emphysema, said that during his first 11 months in prison, he was isolated in a "punishment cell" with "very, very difficult conditions." He said he wrote a book of poems behind bars and hopes to "continue writing just as I did before I went to jail, with professionalism and objectivity."