By Worthy News Americas Service
HAVANA, CUBA (Worthy News)-- Cuba will release 52 political prisoners as part of the communist-run Caribbean island's largest release of dissidents since Pope John Paul II visited in 1998, the Cuban Catholic Church said comments monitored by Worthy News Thursday, July 8.
The church said five of the prisoners would be freed by Thursday, July 8, and allowed to go to Spain, while the remaining 47 would be released over the next few months and permitted to leave if they choose.
It was not immediately clear how many Christians would be among those freed.
Analysts described the release as a major concession to international pressure and a possible step toward improved relations with the United States and Europe. The deal, which will cut the number of known political prisoners by a third, followed a meeting between President Raul Castro and Ortega on Wednesday, July 7.
Also participating was visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos. "Today we announce with complete satisfaction that the objectives we have worked toward have been met," Moratinos told reporters.
The Spanish Embassy said the move “opens a new era in Cuba with hope of putting aside differences once and for all on matters of prisoners."
Those to be released were all members of a group of 75 leading political opposition activists, community organizers and journalists who report on Cuba in defiance of state controls on media, Catholic church officials said. They were rounded up in a crackdown on dissent in March 2003.
Yet, Laura Pollan, whose husband, Hector Maceda, was one of the 75 and has been serving 20 years in prison for treason, remained hesitant. "I don't think they will let everyone go; I think only some will be," The Associated Press news agency quoted her as saying. "It won't be the first time that they lie."
She later added, however, "I hope to God I'm wrong and can tell you in September that I was wrong and that the government kept its promise."
The announced release came just days after unprecedented coverage of a dissident's protest, with the Cuban Communist Party daily Granma reporting that Guillermo Farinas could soon die -- without mentioning his failing health was due to a hunger strike to demand the release of all political prisoners.
Farinas' mother, Alicia Hernandez, confirmed her 48-year-old son's delicate condition, but said he was "standing firm" and would continue his hunger strike, now over 130 days on, until Cuba frees ailing jailed dissidents.
Cuba has denied the existence of dissidents, saying those detained include “mercenaries of the United States” who want to overthrow the government. Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, welcomed the intended release of the prisoners, but added that many others are still suffering.
“These liberations will not mean a significant improvement in the terrible situation of human rights that exists in Cuba," said Sanchez, whose Havana-based commission is not recognized — but largely tolerated — by the government, which officially brooks no organized opposition.
Still, according to a report released this week by Sanchez's group, the number of Cuban political prisoners has fallen to 167, the lowest total since Fidel Castro took power on New Year's Day 1959. (With reporting by Worthy News' Stefan J. Bos).