First of 52 Cuban political prisoners leave Cuba

By Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (BestGrowthStock) – The first six of 52 political prisoners to be freed in a deal with the Catholic Church left Cuba on Monday, bound for a new life as Cuban exiles in Spain.

One of the prisoners, Jose Luis Garcia Paneque, called from an Air Europa jet to Madrid as it was taking off from the Havana airport to confirm the departure for Reuters.

He said five more prisoners were scheduled to leave Havana on a later flight on Monday in the first wave of Cuba’s biggest release of jailed dissidents since 1998.

“You can imagine how a man in prison for seven years, including 17 months in solitary, must feel,” said Garcia, 24, of his new freedom.

The prisoners were accompanied by members of their family, he said. All were kept away from reporters at the Havana airport.

The 52 prisoners have been locked up since they were arrested in a 2003 government crackdown, but are being released under an agreement between the Cuban government and the Catholic Church announced on Wednesday.

Cuba, which views dissidents as U.S.-backed mercenaries working to topple the communist government, wants them to leave the country. Spain has agreed to accept them, if they want to go. So far, 20 have accepted Spain’s offer, the Catholic Church said on Monday.

The surprising decision to release the prisoners, who make up about a third of Cuba’s known political prisoners, has been welcomed by the United States and other countries who have long pressed Cuba to free jailed dissidents and clean up its human rights record.

The government has not explained why it agreed to the release, but it is struggling with a deep financial crisis and likely trying to mend its tarnished international reputation.

INTERNATIONAL CRITICISM

Cuba was criticized internationally for the February 23 death of imprisoned dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo after an 85-day hunger strike for better prison conditions.

It was further condemned for the harassment of the dissident group “Ladies in White” during protest marches in March and April.

Another dissident hunger striker, Guillermo Farinas, was kept alive by the government through intravenous feeding, but was near death when he ended his strike on Thursday after the deal was struck.

“Really, we must say this is the result of a very long struggle, which has involved the sacrifice of one man and the near martyrdom of others — and the Ladies in White have done phenomenal work,” said Garcia Paneque.

The 52 prisoners have been serving sentences ranging from 13 to 24 years for violations of Cuban laws aimed at restricting opposition, and what the government views as subversive activities.

The church and government have had difficult relations since the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro into power, but they have slowly improved since a 1998 visit to the island by Pope John Paul II.

After the pope’s visit, Cuba released 101 political prisoners and about 200 more jailed for common crimes.

The release follows a May 19 meeting between Cuban President Raul Castro and Cuban Catholic leader Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who has taken a more assertive role in Cuba’s public life in recent months.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos helped broker the release in meetings in Havana last week.

(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; editing by Todd Eastham)

First of 52 Cuban political prisoners leave Cuba