Tipping his olive-green cap to Pope John Paul II, Cuban President Fidel Castro has begun an anticipated and unusually large release of political prisoners.
The question now is whether this is merely another in a history of similar gestures toward prominent foreign visitors, or whether it represents a shift in the dictatorship's treatment of political dissidence.
The scant commentary coming so far from official Cuban sources seems to indicate the former. But the government move is nevertheless raising hopes across Cuba.
"This is a very positive gesture, and we are hopeful that it will prove to be more than just that, but rather the continuation of a gradual transformation in the Cuban system," says Elizardo Snchez Santa Cruz, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a prominent dissident group. "What must happen is a reform of the Cuban penal code and judicial system so that the freedom of association, the freedom of expression and of the press, are no longer crimes," he adds. "Otherwise, the prisons will just fill up again."
The Cuban government began releasing Friday what it said would be about 300 pardoned criminals, including common criminals and prisoners of conscience. The release was announced by both Havana and the Vatican, and was characterized as a gesture to the pope following his January visit to Cuba.
During the visit, the Vatican presented a list of 270 prisoners for whom it sought clemency.
In commenting on the Cuban government's decision, the Vatican called it "unprecedented." But in fact it mirrors gestures that have followed the visits of other foreign dignitaries whom Mr. Castro has wished to oblige. Similar (though smaller) releases followed the 1995 visit of former French first lady Danielle Mitterrand and the 1984 visit of Jesse Jackson.
On Sunday, Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina said it would be folly to interpret the prisoner release as a move to broaden political rights. "The pardon was not done with the intention of stimulating internal dissident activities," he said.
Mr. Snchez, himself a former political prisoner, has in the past called Cuba a "gulag" for its high number of prisoners. "Unfortunately, it's still true," he says, noting that many prisoners are held without trial and without government acknowledgement or notification of family. Before the pope's visit, international human rights groups estimated the number of Cuba's political prisoners at between 400 to 500.
As of Sunday, Cuban rights advocates confirmed the release of more than 100 prisoners. About half were thought to be prisoners of conscience, with 37 confirmed released political prisoners.
Perhaps the most prominent political prisoner freed so far is Hctor Palacios Ruiz, head of the illegal Democratic Solidarity Party. He was jailed in January 1997 for "disrespect for authority," after he called Castro "crazy" in front of German journalists.
Snchez say he hopes "the international community takes careful note of this gesture" and responds to it with "inclusive" actions toward Cuba. "The 40 years of isolating policies followed by the United States have accomplished nothing," he says. He added that perhaps the most positive gesture would be Cuba's reincorporation into the Organization of American States.
"That way," he says, "Cuba would be compelled to adhere to the organization's charter on human rights."