Reporting from Mexico City — The Cuban government has agreed to release the largest group of political prisoners in a decade, following months of talks and the intervention this week of Spain, the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba said Wednesday.
In a statement posted on its website, the Archdiocese of Havana said 52 prisoners would be freed — five "in the next hours" and an additional 47 in the next three to four months.
All will be allowed to leave the country, the church said. It was not clear, however, whether the Cuban government would require them to do so. Human rights activists in Cuba have insisted that freedom be granted unconditionally.
There was conflicting information on the identities of the prisoners. The church indicated that most were among the group arrested in spring 2003 during a harsh government crackdown on dissent.
But Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said he understood that many of those being prepped for release had been arrested before or after the 2003 events.
Sanchez's organization this week released its semiannual report listing a total of 167 "prisoners of conscience," down 20% from the previous report six months earlier and the lowest number since the 1959 revolution.
Speaking before the church's announcement, Sanchez welcomed the releases as significant but too long in coming.
"The government needs to clean up its image," Sanchez said in a telephone interview from Havana. "With a lot of the international insistence on this issue, this is a step in its interest."
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, was informed of the government's decision on Wednesday in a meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro, the church statement said. Ortega has also spearheaded months of discussions with the Cuban government that in May led to the liberation of one prisoner and transfer of 12 others to jails closer to their homes.
In addition to the church's efforts, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos arrived in Havana this week to press for additional releases. Several European countries plus Chile have offered to take in Cuban dissidents.
"I am convinced that the days of work … will be positive, will be successful," Moratinos told reporters at the start of his mission Tuesday.
Movement on the prisoner issue also comes at a time of growing concern over the health of Guillermo Farinas, a dissident who launched a hunger strike in late February to demand the release of detainees. Farinas was moved to a hospital on March 11 and is being fed intravenously. But Farinas' doctor, Armando Caballero, told the official Cuban newspaper Granma this week that a blood clot and other complications could kill him.
Another hunger striker, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died in February, which helped sparked a wave of protests by the so-called Ladies in White, prisoners' mothers and wives who march in Havana every Sunday.
Cuba's communist government has routinely insisted that the prisoners are common criminals or troublemakers paid by Washington, which the dissidents deny.
In early 1998, then-President Fidel Castro ordered the release of more than 200 prisoners, about half of them considered by human rights groups to be political, in response to a plea from the late Pope John Paul II during his historic visit to the island.