The protagonists of the Cuba prisoner release agreement – the largest deal of its kind in more than a decade – have arrived in Spain.
Seven former prisoners, all jailed in the 2003 roundup of dissidents, activists, and journalists known as “Black Spring,” appeared at the international airport in Madrid, with words of hope that dozens of other prisoners are granted the same freedoms eventually.
“We hope that those that continue in Cuba will be able to enjoy the same liberties as we have at this moment," Julio Cesar Galvez, one of the former prisoners, read in a statement by the group. "Our arrival signals the start of a new period in the future of Cuba.”
Their release was the work of negotiations spearheaded by the Roman Catholic Church and Spanish officials, and they represent the first of 52 prisoners promised to be released in coming months.
Of the original 75 arrested in the “Black Spring” roundup, some had already been released for having fulfilled their terms or due to health reasons. But many suspect that Cuba's real motive for the new release is to bolster ties with the European Union, which has demanded the release of political prisoners, at a time when Cuba´s economy is ailing.
Of the seven who arrived in Madrid today, six are journalists, says Carlos Lauria, the Americas senior program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). While the CPJ welcomes their release from jail, especially given the grim incarcerations they faced, Mr. Lauria says Cuba has a long way to go in terms of political and journalistic freedom. “It is not that all of a sudden Cuba is seeing any changes in the many restrictive laws that punish any kind of independent reporting or allow people to address themselves freely,” he says.
And even if all 52 are eventually released, human rights groups say that more than 100 activists and dissidents still languish in jail. That is why dissidents say they are not giving up their fight. Each Sunday, wives and sisters of the “Black Spring” prisoners who call themselves the Ladies in White, have staged peaceful protests. On Sunday they gathered again in Havana and said they will continue to do so until all prisoners are released.
The Catholic Church has said that 13 more prisoners will be released imminently and the rest over the course of the next three months.
Some fear the promise will not be carried out.
Still, the arrival in Madrid of the first seven was greeted positively, even by the US.
"We applaud the efforts of the Cuban Catholic Church, Spain, and others who have worked towards the release of prisoners of conscience from jail in Cuba," said Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip J. Crowley in a statement. "While the United States continues to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, this is a positive development that we hope will represent a step towards increased respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba.”