HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba will free 52 political prisoners, Cuba’s Catholic church said on Wednesday, in a major concession to international pressure and a possible step toward improved relations with the United States and Europe.
The church said five of the prisoners would be freed later on Wednesday and allowed to go to Spain, while the remaining 47 would be released over the next few months and permitted to leave the communist-led Caribbean island, if they choose.
The 52 men are those still in jail from 75 arrested in a 2003 government crackdown against dissidents that damaged Cuba’s international standing.
The release was the result of recent dialogue between President Raul Castro and Cuban Catholic leader Cardinal Jaime Ortega as the church has taken a more prominent role in national affairs.
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos came to Havana this week to join in their discussions. He said the release would “open a new era in Cuba ... with the desire to definitively resolve the question of the prisoners.”
The release would be the largest since 1998, when 101 political prisoners were among about 300 inmates freed following a visit by Pope John Paul II.
It will reduce the number of dissidents behind bars to about 100, which moves Cuba closer to eliminating one of the biggest stumbling blocks in its relations with the United States and Europe.
The United States and European Union have long pressed Havana to free political prisoners, improve human rights and move toward democracy.
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights said on Monday that Cuba had 167 political prisoners, including 10 who were out on parole, which was the lowest number since the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power.
The U.S. State Department issued a cautious statement, saying it was working to confirm the church’s report but “would view prisoner releases as a positive development.”
But Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-born member of the U.S. Congress from Florida and the top Republican on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, warned against being “fooled” by the government in Havana and said “maximum pressure must be exerted” until all Cubans are free.
Reaction from Cuban dissidents was mixed, with Elizardo Sanchez of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights saying the release was “something good” but not an indication that Cuba’s human rights will improve.
Laura Pollan, leader of the dissident group Ladies in White, said the release was an important moment in Cuba.
“I believe we are at the doors of a change, a significant change,” said Pollan, whose husband Hector Maceda was one of those still behind bars from the 2003 crackdown.
Hopefully, she said, it will be “the first steps of a true freedom, of a true democracy.”
Cuba’s state-run television reported Castro met Ortega and Moratinos on Wednesday but did not mention the prisoner release.
Cuba came under heavy international criticism after the February 23 death of hunger-striking dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo and in recent weeks has slightly relaxed its policy toward dissidents, whom it views as mercenaries working for the United States and other enemies to topple the government.
Zapata’s death prompted another dissident, Guillermo Farinas, to launch a hunger strike that, after 134 days, reportedly has brought him near death in a hospital in the central city of Santa Clara.
He is demanding the release of 25 ailing political prisoners, who are believed to be included in the group to be freed. But Farinas said through his spokeswoman that he would not yet abandon his strike because he has not received word from the church or the government.
His refusal led to a dramatic scene at Pollan’s home in central Havana, where she implored him by phone to start eating.
“Trust a little bit,” she said. “Stop the hunger strike. You are more valuable alive than dead.”
Sarah Stephens, director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, said she hoped Wednesday’s events would shift U.S. policy away from its cornerstone -- a 48-year-old trade embargo against Cuba -- and toward greater dialogue.
“This is joyful news ... and a lesson for U.S. policymakers that engagement -- talking to the Cubans with respect -- is accomplishing more right now than the embargo has accomplished in 50 years,” she said.
U.S. President Barack Obama has made modest efforts to improve relations with Cuba, including a slight easing of the embargo, and has said there would be further progress when the island released political prisoners.
But standing in the way is Cuba’s detention of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who has been jailed in Havana since December on suspicion of espionage activities.
U.S. officials, who say Gross is not a spy and was only providing Internet access to Jewish groups, maintain there will be no significant improvements in relations until he is freed.
Cuba, which considers Gross to be part of longstanding U.S. efforts to undermine its system, has said only that he remains under investigation.
Moratinos said the release of the prisoners “logically has to help (Cuba‘s) relations with the United States, because now there is no excuse.”
The Spaniard has been a leading voice in Europe for engagement with Cuba instead of confrontation and has pushed for the 27-nation bloc to drop its common position emphasizing improved human rights and democracy on the island.
The Cubans view the EU’s stance as an obstacle to relations.
Zapata’s death helped derail Moratinos’ efforts to amend the EU position while Spain led the bloc in the first half of this year but he said freeing the prisoners changes things.
Many in Europe “did not trust this way of doing policy and today we see that it gives results,” Moratinos said.
Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta and Rosa Tania Valdes; Editing by John O'Callaghan