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Released Cuban political prisoners arrive in Spain

MADRID (Reuters) - Seven freed Cuban political prisoners arrived in Madrid on Tuesday in the first wave of a release of jailed dissidents that could lead to improved relations between the European Union and Havana.

Since Cuba locked up dozens of dissidents in a crackdown in 2003, the EU has applied diplomatic sanctions and conditioned aid to the island’s communist government on improvements in human rights and political freedom.

Cuba has not said why it recently agreed to release up to 52 prisoners and allow them to move to Spain with their families, but the answer may be in the country’s deep financial crisis and tarnished international reputation.

“If Cuba releases more prisoners throughout the summer and into the autumn, there will be grounds for removing the embargo and might even lead, in the long term, to Cuba liberalizing its economy,” said Agustin Ulied, professor of economics at ESADE, a leading Spanish business school.

The Communist Party is the only recognized political party in Cuba since 1965.

A total of 75 dissidents are in jail and Cuba was criticized internationally for the February 23 death of one of them, Orlando Zapata, after an 85-day hunger strike for better conditions.

The seven released prisoners, with their family members, arrived in two separate flights, six on one flight, one on another. Cuba has pledged to release another 45.

“For us, exile is an extension of our fight and you can fight in many ways. We have total faith in words, in dialogue and extraordinary faith that change is inevitable,” one of the freed prisoners, Ricardo Gonzalez, said in a statement he read aloud on behalf of the group, after they landed in Madrid.

Spain, which in June handed over the six-month EU Presidency, has been active in the deal to release prisoners, offering them and family members a home in Spain.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos was in Cuba last week to meet with Catholic church leaders and President Raul Castro and help broker the release.

Spain is Cuba’s biggest European trading partner and has invested heavily in the tourism industry on which the island strongly depends, but halted aid in 2003.

Spain re-established some aid in 2007. While some EU members have wanted to keep up pressure for political change in Cuba before freeing aid and investment, Spain has favored engagement.

Some voices in Spain are opposed to any deals with Cuba over the prisoners.

“Taking a soft and kind approach to the Cuban dictatorship encourages token gestures like this release of prisoners and goes entirely against our strategy toward Cuba,” Esperanza Aguirre, president of the Community of Madrid local government, said on RNE radio station.

Cuban President Raul Castro replaced his ailing elder brother, Fidel Castro in 2008, Cuba’s first leadership change in almost half a century.

Additional reporting by Inmaculada Sanz; editing by Fiona Ortiz and Angus MacSwan