* Constructive engagement can work - analysts
* More conciliatory steps needed from both sides
* Detention of U.S. contractor still an obstacle
HAVANA, July 7 (Reuters) - Cuba’s planned release of more than 50 political prisoners could create momentum for a more open U.S. policy toward the communist-ruled Caribbean island but further conciliatory steps are needed from both sides.
Analysts hailed the Cuban Catholic Church’s announcement of the releases as evidence that dialogue and engagement, as opposed to threats, sanctions and isolation, were more fruitful diplomatic tools to foster change on the island after half a century of ideological enmity between Washington and Havana.
Cuban Catholic prelates had included calls for political prisoners to be freed in their talks this year with President Raul Castro. The announcement also coincided with a visit to Havana by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who has advocated more open constructive engagement by the European Union toward Cuba. [ID:nN07253638] [ID:nN07160782]
Castro’s government was widely condemned following the Feb. 23 death of hunger striking dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo and also faced protests from other internal dissidents calling for prisoner releases.
Marches by Cuba’s dissident “Ladies in White” and further hunger strikes had already led to some recent small relaxations by the government toward jailed internal opponents -- such as the freeing of a sick prisoner and moving others to jails closer to their homes and families.
“The big lesson here is that civil society can make a difference and the best way to encourage civil society is to open up rather than close down,” Carlos Saladrigas, co-chair of the Cuban Study Group, told Reuters.
The organization of Cuban-American businessmen seeks increased contacts with Havana, including targeted relaxations of the 48-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.
“If Cuba has moved, we should not stay paralyzed. We need to start moving too. Engagement works,” Saladrigas said.
He suggested Washington could promote more people-to-people contacts with Cuba by allowing Americans to travel there and opening up wider telecommunications links.
The announced prisoner releases, the largest of their kind in Cuba in more than a decade, will reduce the number of dissidents behind bars on the island to close to 100.
The 52 prisoners to be released -- five immediately and the rest over the coming months -- appeared to be those remaining in jail from 75 arrested in a 2003 government crackdown.
“It is hard to imagine that that would not have an impact on relations with the United States and Europe,” said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert and vice president of the Lexington Institute in Virginia.
DETAINED U.S. CONTRACTOR
But analysts warned that more major steps by both sides were required to advance further normalization of long hostile relations between the United States and Cuba -- a Cold War freeze that followed Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.
While welcoming the prisoner releases as a “very positive” move by Havana, Saladrigas said that major economic, social and political problems remained to be resolved in Cuba and “these won’t be solved without a wide national dialogue” that should include opponents of the communist government.
Marifeli Perez Stable, a Cuba analyst at Florida International University, said if Havana released all of its remaining political detainees that would help U.S. President Barack Obama move forward with initiatives to ease the embargo and open up bilateral ties.
But observers saw a possible obstacle in Cuba’s continued detention of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who has been held by Havana since December on suspicion of espionage activities.
U.S. officials and his employers have said Gross was not a spy and was in Cuba providing Internet access to Jewish groups.
“Nothing substantial will occur (in U.S.-Cuban relations) until Gross returns home to his family,” Perez Stable said.
“If I were the United States, I’d ask the Cuban Church to include this subject (Gross) in its talks with the Cuban government,” said Saladrigas.
European diplomats say Raul Castro, who took over the Cuban presidency from his ailing elder brother Fidel two years ago, has expressed privately to Catholic Church leaders a willingness to resolve the issue of political prisoners.
“They are ready to free all the prisoners but in their own pace and on their own terms,” said one diplomatic source, who asked not to be identified.
Human rights advocates said earlier this week, before the announcement of the releases, that Cuba had 167 political prisoners behind bars, including 10 who were out on parole.
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.
Analysts say Castro’s government appears to be willing to deal with the Catholic Church, treating it as a valid interlocutor on national problems and issues. But it has refused any dialogue with dissidents, whom it dismisses as “mercenaries” in the pay of the United States.
Additional reporting by Jeff Franks and Pascal Fletcher, Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by John O’Callaghan
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