Why is Cuba releasing 52 political prisoners?

Cuba says it will start releasing 52 political prisoners – the biggest release in more than a decade – today. Spain conducted the negotiations, but some Cuba analysts expect the US to respond by easing the American embargo on Cuba.

By , Staff writer

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    Laura Pollan speaks with hospitalized dissident Guillermo Farinas on the phone after Cuba's Roman Catholic Church said that the government has agreed to free 52 political prisoners. Pollan is the leader of Ladies in White, an organization made up of wives and mothers of political prisoners, and her husband Hector Maseda is one of the 52 people expected to be released.

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The dramatic decision by Havana to release 52 political prisoners – a third of all those currently held – has raised expectations that a reciprocal move by the US could begin to more quickly improve relations between the US and Cuba.

The announcement was made Wednesday, after a meeting between Cuban President Raul Castro, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Havana Jaime Ortega, and Spain's foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos. It is the largest single release of political prisoners since 1998, when a visit by Pope John Paul II prompted a large-scale prisoner release.

According to a statement on the website of the Archdiocese of Havana, five of the prisoners will be released in the coming hours and sent to Spain. Six will be moved immediately to prisons closer to their homes. Those remaining are to be freed within the following three to four months.

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"This opens a new era in Cuba with hope of putting aside differences once and for all on matters of prisoners," the Spanish Embassy said in a released statement.

But William LeoGrande, Cuba expert at American University in Washington, says that the deal on its own will have more significance for Cuban-European relations than the US, which has listed Cuba´s human rights record at the center of its demands before relations can be normalized.

“In some ways you might see this as Cuba testing the sincerity of the US, doing something dramatic that the US demanded, to see if the US responds positively,” he says.

Other than the easing of US travel restrictions and remittances for Cuban Americans, little has changed in the bilateral relationship between the US, which has implemented an embargo for nearly 50 years against Cuba, since Barack Obama and Raul Castro became heads of their respective nations. Mr. LeoGrande says Obama could respond to the prisoner release by easing rules for medical exchanges or issue more commercial licensing in areas of mutual cooperation.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US views it as a welcome advance. "We think that's a positive sign. It's something that is overdue but nevertheless very welcome," she said Thursday.

The Archdiocese of Havana said that at the center of their negotiations with the Cuban government has been the political activists and journalists who were arrested in March 2003, what Cuban dissidents have dubbed the Black Spring. A group of wives and relatives have protested each Sunday ever since. Prior to now, some of the Black Spring prisoners have been released for various reasons, including health issues.

The Catholic Church has taken a more prominent role lately in negotiating with the Cuban government, viewed as a good sign by Cuba observers in the US.

“We see this as a very positive signal from the Cuban government that perhaps they will be willing in the future to permit or use other independent institutions such as the Catholic Church to somehow intervene in negotiations for the release of prisoners and perhaps other issues of importance to the Cuban people,” says Francisco Jose Hernandez, the president of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) in Miami.

“In the past, the Cuban government has been totally against outside interference pressuring them to act on any specific issue, especially issues that may have some political involvement.”

The announcement comes too late for hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo in February, whose death brought worldwide condemnation from human rights workers. But another hunger striker, Guillermo Farinas, who is reported to be gravely ill from a strike he launched in February over the situation of political prisoners in Cuba, will end his hunger strike with the release of the 52 prisoners, according to a spokeswoman.

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