[Marxism] Cubajn Catholic prelate says gov will release 52 WASHINGTON POST pro-US ]prisoners

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Thu Jul 8 09:05:16 MDT 2010


WASHINGTON POST
Cuba to release 52 political prisoners, Catholic Church says

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. 



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