By Juan O. Tamayo
MIAMI – Cuba will free 52 political prisoners and allow them to leave the island, Roman Catholic church officials announced Wednesday in a surprising concession that would be the largest release of jailed dissidents in more than a decade.
The announcement came after the latest round of unprecedented talks between Cuban ruler Raul Castro and Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega on the island’s estimated 167 political prisoners and broader human rights issues.
Ortega was told five prisoners would be freed Wednesday, and have permission to leave soon for Spain, and another 47 would be released over the next three to four months, Havana archbishopric spokesman Orlando Marquez wrote in a statement.
The 52 were the last of the 75 dissidents arrested in Cuba’s “Black Spring” crackdown in 2003 still in prison, Marquez wrote. The 75 were sentenced to prison terms of up to 28 years after one- and two-day trials on charges of conspiring with Washington. Two dozen were previously released for health reasons.
Cuba has been under withering criticisms for human rights abuses since the Feb. 23 death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata after a lengthy hunger strike and harassments of the Ladies in White _ female relatives of the 75 _ by pro-government mobs.
The announced releases drew cautiously optimistic comments from the Ladies in White as well as the Obama administration and the European Union, which have been urging Cuba to clean up its human rights record if it wants to clear the way for improved diplomatic relations.
“We would view prisoner releases as a positive development, but we are seeking further details to confirm” the church’s announcement, said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Virginia Staab.
“I am very moved and surprised, but I remain pretty skeptical,” said Laura Pollan, a Ladies in White spokeswoman whose husband is serving a 20-year sentence. “I hope that by September all the prisoners will have been freed, and I can say I was wrong.”
Pollan added that she hopes the Cuban government will not force the freed prisoners to leave the country. The church statement said they “will be able” to leave the country, but gave no further details.
The Washington-based Cuba Study Group, which favors easing U.S. sanctions on Havana, called on U.S. officials to “respond to the positive development in Cuba with substantive measures,” but urged the church to negotiate the freedom of the remaining political prisoners.
Havana human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez said he was also “pleasantly surprised” by the large scope of the promised releases but added that Havana should free all political prisoners, respect all human rights and stop repressing its peaceful political opponents.
“Under current laws that make the exercise of civil rights a crime, in a couple of months the prisons could be full again,” Sanchez said by telephone from Havana.
Dissident Guillermo Farinas, hospitalized since March amid a hunger strike to demand the release of 26 political prisoners reported to be in ill health, said he would only resume accepting food and water after at least 12 of the political prisoners have been released.
“I am skeptical. Until our brothers are on the street, we don’t’ trust the authorities,” he declared, according to an AFP report from Havana. He stopped taking food and liquids one day after Zapata died, but has been receiving nourishment intravenously at the hospital.
Cuban American National Foundation President Francisco Hernandez welcomed the announcement but added, “We must remind the world that … the Castro regime continues to commit a multitude of daily crimes against the Cuban people.”
The church statement said Ortega met Wednesday with Castro, visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. Ortega also met with Moratinos and Rodriguez just before the session with Castro, it added, without detailing who announced the prisoner releases.
Castro and Ortega have been negotiating the release of some political prisoners, and improved jail conditions for others, since May in the Havana government’s first-ever negotiations with an independent Cuban organization.
Up until Wednesday, the talks had led to the release of one political prisoner in a wheelchair, Ariel Sigler, and the transfer of another dozen to prisons closer to their homes.