By William Booth and Karen DeYoung
Thursday, July 8, 2010; A01
MEXICO CITY -- The Cuban government will free 52 political prisoners, Catholic officials in Havana said Wednesday, the largest release of captive dissidents in decades and a surprise gesture that could help thaw relations with the United States.
The scheduled release of those arrested in a March 2003 crackdown against pro-democracy activists on the island was brokered by the country's archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, with help from visiting Spanish diplomats.
Ortega met this week with Cuban President Raúl Castro, brother of the country's ailing dictator. Fidel Castro, 83, has not been seen in public for four years but remains the country's supreme leader and probably approved the move.
The Cuban government had nothing to say about the release, and human rights activists were cautious in their response to the church's announcement.
"This is significant, and good news, from the point of view of the prisoners and their families," Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights, said by telephone from Havana. "But it is a political decision of the Cuban government, taken for short-term political motives, to have an immediate effect overseas, not in Cuba itself."
If the government does release the prisoners, said José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch in Washington, "it's a significant number." But he added: "That doesn't mean we are going to congratulate a government that has decided to put people in prison who shouldn't have been in prison in the first place. These are people whose crime is that they disagreed with the government."
U.S. officials have said that the release of political prisoners is a necessary step before the two governments can improve their often stormy relations. The United States has maintained a 50-year trade embargo against Cuba, and Americans who do not have relatives on the island need special permission from the U.S. government to travel there.
The State Department said Wednesday night that it had no confirmation that any prisoners had been released. A spokeswoman said, "We would view prisoner releases as a positive development, but we are seeking further details to confirm the facts."
The Roman Catholic Church said in a statement that five of the 52 political prisoners would be freed within hours and would travel to Spain, accompanied by their relatives. Whether they were forced into exile or chose to leave is not known.
The remaining 47 will be released in "a process that will take three or four months starting now" and "may leave the country," according to the church. The prisoners, who include journalists, community organizers and opposition figures, were sentenced to prison terms of 20 years and more. Sanchez noted that no names had been released and that no relatives or lawyers had been notified, even the five families who were said to be leaving immediately.
Laura Pollan, the wife of prisoner Hector Maceda, said she was overjoyed that her husband might be released, but she told the Associated Press in Havana: "I don't think they will let everyone go. . . . It's not the first time they lie."
One of those arrested in 2003, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died in February after weeks on a hunger strike. Zapata was sentenced to several long prison terms on charges of "disrespect," "public disorder" and "resistance." His death sparked widespread condemnation of the Cuban government, even from friendly nations in Europe and Latin America. Human rights activists noted that the report of new releases came as a second hunger striker, Guillermo Fariñas, was said to be near death.History of prisoners
In the years immediately after Cuban guerrillas overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Fidel Castro's revolutionary government jailed as many as 15,000 people. Cuba-watchers say Havana has released handfuls of political prisoners before -- typically in conjunction with the release of larger numbers of common criminals -- to garner applause before visits by global figures such as the pope or former president Jimmy Carter. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, whose government has been particularly critical on the prisoners issue, arrived in Havana this week and participated in talks between the church and the government.
If the Cubans free the 52 prisoners, that would leave only a few "prisoners of conscience . . . held solely for the expression of their political views," according to a tally by Amnesty International, which has condemned the Castro regime for human rights abuses.
The Cuban rights commission, however, puts the number of political prisoners that would still be held at around 100. That includes people sentenced as terrorists who may or may not have committed or planned acts of violence against the state. The Cuban government calls them common criminals or "mercenaries" working for U.S. intelligence services.'Cosmetic actions'
The imprisonments and absence of political rights in Cuba have been major obstacles in any rapprochement with the United States.
"For most of us, the most troubling thing about this event is that it doesn't change at all the terrible condition of civil and human rights under which the immense majority of Cubans live," said Sanchez, the human rights activist, referring to the promised release. "These are cosmetic actions."
Raúl Castro has said that he would free all the "so-called political prisoners" if Washington freed five members of a Cuban spy network from U.S. prisons.
U.S. officials have particularly focused on 75 Cuban activists arrested in the spring of 2003. They were collecting signatures on a petition to change the constitution to permit more freedoms; Havana condemned them as paid lackeys of the United States.
While human rights activists in the United States and Cuba were cautious about the significance of the reported releases, some other Cuba experts said they signaled a shift in Havana's stance.
"This is something new going on, something big," said Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute think tank in Arlington. "It doesn't end the human rights problem in Cuba, but represents a dramatic change and is certain to draw a reaction from Washington and Europe."
DeYoung reported from Washington.