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Vatican official's Cuba visit spurs new hopes

HAVANA (Reuters) - A visit to Cuba by the Vatican’s foreign minister raised hopes that more political prisoners will be released and the Catholic church’s recent prominence will continue, dissident and church leaders said on Monday.

They viewed the five-day stay by Archbishop Dominque Mamberti, which ended on Sunday, as a step forward in Vatican-Cuban relations.

“Really, we are very optimistic about the visit because there could be more releases of our family members.

“This visit has been very positive,” said Berta Soler, a leader in the dissident group “Ladies in White,” whose husbands and sons are political prisoners.

In joint appearances, Cuban officials and Mamberti repeatedly used words like “cordial,” “respectful” and “on the rise” to describe Cuban-Vatican relations, which have improved in the past decade after years of discord following Cuba’s 1959 revolution.

The official reason for Mamberti’s trip was to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Cuba.

Mamberti avoided controversy by not mentioning political prisoners publicly or meeting with dissidents, who Cuban leaders view as mercenaries for the United States.

Mamberti met on Sunday with Cuban President Raul Castro, signaling the importance of his visit for Cuba, which has been under fire for its human rights following the February death of imprisoned dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo in a hunger strike.

“The visit of Mamberti showed the favorable level and development of relations between the State and the Catholic church in Cuba,” Communist Party newspaper Granma said on Monday.

Mamberti’s trip was preceded by the release of one of Cuba’s estimated 190 political prisoners, and the transfer of 12 others to jails closer to their homes.

The moves followed a rare meeting between Castro and Cuban church leader Cardinal Jaime Ortega last month in which political prisoners and broader domestic issues were discussed in what Ortega called a “magnificent beginning” to greater dialogue.

In April, Ortega raised eyebrows by saying in a magazine interview that Cubans were tired of the island’s chronic economic problems, which he tied to the “limitations of the type of socialism practiced here.”

Archbishop Dionisio Garcia, head of Cuba’s Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Reuters Mamberti’s visit solidified the recent gains in church-state relations and likely laid the groundwork for more prisoner releases and transfers.

“The fact of speaking with the authorities is going to consolidate this process,” he said from his headquarters in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. “We all hope this happens and that they continue the releases and other measures.”

Elizardo Sanchez of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights predicted several more prisoners will be released or transferred closer to their homes this week.

But instead of ascribing the moves to improved church-state relations, he said it was “a political decision” by the government.

(Additional reporting by Esteban Israel; editing by Jeff Franks and Todd Eastham)

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