July 14, 2010 / 3:18 AM / 10 years ago

Cuba frees prisoners, but Fidel steals spotlight

HAVANA (Reuters) - As Cuba shipped off more freed political prisoners to Spain, former leader Fidel Castro stayed in the spotlight on Tuesday, making his third public appearance in the past week after four years in seclusion.

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro speaks with members of the Centre of World Economic Investigations (CIEM) during a visit in Havana July 13, 2010. REUTERS/Alex Castro

The 83-year-old comandante met with economists in Havana’s Center for Research on the World Economy to ask them to think about how to create a “new civilization” after the coming nuclear war he has predicted for several weeks, according to state-run website www.cubadebate.cu.

It published photographs by his son Alex Castro of the white-bearded, blue-shirted Castro sitting at the head of a table presiding over the meeting. Unlike in most recent photos, he was not wearing an athletic jacket.

He has been writing in Cuban media that nuclear war will soon break out when the United States, in alliance with Israel, tries to enforce international sanctions against Iran for its nuclear activities.

Before the past few days, Castro had been seen only in a occasional photographs and videos since undergoing intestinal surgery in July 2006.

But on Saturday, first a blogger, then the government said Castro had appeared on Wednesday at the National Center of Scientific Investigations and ran photographs to prove it.

Then on Monday, Castro appeared in a videotaped interview on Cuban television talking about his predicted war.

Intended or not, Castro’s appearances have drawn attention away from Cuba’s largest release of political prisoners since 1998.

TURNING POINT

The freeing of 52 jailed dissidents, viewed internationally as a possible turning point for Cuba, began on Monday night when the first seven were flown to Spain.

Spanish officials said three or four more were to go on Tuesday to Spain, which agreed to accept them in negotiations last week.

They were expected to leave Havana on Tuesday night flights, but Cuban officials were mum on the topic.

The release is the product of a new dialogue between the Cuban government and Catholic Church, which began in earnest in a May 19 meeting between President Raul Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega, leader of Cuba’s Catholics.

Raul Castro took over provisionally when older brother Fidel fell ill, then officially became president in February 2008.

Cuba agreed to free the 52 men still in jail from 75 arrested in a 2003 crackdown on government opponents, but said it wants them out of the country.

The church said 20 of the prisoners have accepted Spain’s offer, but it might take several months to release the entire 52, who are about a third of all Cuba’s political prisoners.

Still not clear is whether those who refuse to go to Spain will be freed.

The release has raised hopes that the United States and Europe will reciprocate by taking steps to improve relations with the communist-led island.

It also has been welcomed as a sign that President Castro will respond to long-standing international pressure to improve Cuba’s human rights.

Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba for 49 years and was president when the men were jailed, did not mention the prisoners in his television interview nor was he reported to have talked of them in his other two appearances.

Editing by Mohammad Zargham

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