HAVANA Cuba's government has released one of its estimated 200 political prisoners in a gesture of goodwill following a visit by Spain's foreign minister, Cuban dissidents and Spanish diplomats said on Tuesday.
Spain portrayed the release as a vindication of its policy of engagement, instead of confrontation, with the communist-led island that has resisted outside pressures to change since the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power.
Nelson Aguiar, a 64-year-old electrician who was sentenced to 13 years in prison in a 2003 government crackdown on opponents, was freed on Tuesday morning and is back with his family in Havana, dissidents told Reuters.
In addition, Cuba agreed to release from jail a Spanish businessman accused of paying off Cuban officials. But he must remain in Cuba for his trial, diplomats said.
Cuban dissidents said that, officially, Aguiar was released for health reasons.
There was no immediate confirmation from the Cuban government, which presents dissidents as U.S.-aided traitors and says it has no political prisoners.
Elizardo Sanchez of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights said the release was a gesture to Spain, whose foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, completed a two-day visit to Havana on Monday.
Moratinos, who met Cuban President Raul Castro on Monday, did not meet with dissidents during his visit because he told reporters he was in Cuba to "strengthen bilateral relations."
He said he and Raul Castro, who replaced elder brother Fidel Castro as president last year, discussed human rights "in general terms."
"It's the same thing as always: the Castros giving prisoners as gifts," said Sanchez. A recent report by his commission said Cuba has 208 political prisoners.
"NEW POLITICAL REALITY"
A Spanish diplomat in Havana said the prisoner release was the product of what Moratinos called the "new political reality" between Spain and its former colony.
"It's our position that this is the result of a policy of dialogue followed by Spain on a basis of respect," the diplomat, who asked not to be named, said.
Moratinos had faced criticism at home in Spain for not meeting with dissidents during his visit to Cuba.
Spain, which is tied with Canada as the island's third-biggest trading partner, is set to take over the revolving presidency of the European Union in January.
Moratinos said that during its six-month EU presidency term Spain hoped to eliminate a 1996 EU resolution that predicated dialogue with Cuba on its transition to a multi-party democracy, which has irritated the one-party Cuban state.
The EU imposed diplomatic sanctions on Cuba after the 2003 government crackdown in which 75 dissidents, including Aguiar, were imprisoned.
But at the urging of Spain and others, the EU lifted the sanctions and re-established cooperation with Cuba last year.
Sanchez said the Cuban authorities also had given permission to another former prisoner, Omelio Lazaro Angulo, to leave the country.
Cuba has released prisoners before as a result of meetings with foreign officials, including one such case in 1996 when three were freed after New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, then a U.S. congressman, met with Fidel Castro.
(Editing by Jeff Franks and Pascal Fletcher)