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Why is Cuba releasing 52 political prisoners?

Why is Cuba releasing 52 political prisoners?

Cuba says it will start releasing 52 political prisoners – the biggest
release in more than a decade – today. Spain conducted the negotiations,
but some Cuba analysts expect the US to respond by easing the American
embargo on Cuba.
By Sara Miller Llana, Staff writer / July 8, 2010
Mexico City

The dramatic decision by Havana to release 52 political prisoners – a
third of all those currently held – has raised expectations that a
reciprocal move by the US could begin to more quickly improve relations
between the US and Cuba.

The announcement was made Wednesday, after a meeting between Cuban
President Raul Castro, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Havana Jaime
Ortega, and Spain's foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos. It is the
largest single release of political prisoners since 1998, when a visit
by Pope John Paul II prompted a large-scale prisoner release.

According to a statement on the website of the Archdiocese of Havana,
five of the prisoners will be released in the coming hours and sent to
Spain. Six will be moved immediately to prisons closer to their homes.
Those remaining are to be freed within the following three to four months.

"This opens a new era in Cuba with hope of putting aside differences
once and for all on matters of prisoners," the Spanish Embassy said in a
released statement.

But William LeoGrande, Cuba expert at American University in Washington,
says that the deal on its own will have more significance for
Cuban-European relations than the US, which has listed Cuba´s human
rights record at the center of its demands before relations can be

"In some ways you might see this as Cuba testing the sincerity of the
US, doing something dramatic that the US demanded, to see if the US
responds positively," he says.

Other than the easing of US travel restrictions and remittances for
Cuban Americans, little has changed in the bilateral relationship
between the US, which has implemented an embargo for nearly 50 years
against Cuba, since Barack Obama and Raul Castro became heads of their
respective nations. Mr. LeoGrande says Obama could respond to the
prisoner release by easing rules for medical exchanges or issue more
commercial licensing in areas of mutual cooperation.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US views it as a welcome
advance. "We think that's a positive sign. It's something that is
overdue but nevertheless very welcome," she said Thursday.

The Archdiocese of Havana said that at the center of their negotiations
with the Cuban government has been the political activists and
journalists who were arrested in March 2003, what Cuban dissidents have
dubbed the Black Spring. A group of wives and relatives have protested
each Sunday ever since. Prior to now, some of the Black Spring prisoners
have been released for various reasons, including health issues.

The Catholic Church has taken a more prominent role lately in
negotiating with the Cuban government, viewed as a good sign by Cuba
observers in the US.

"We see this as a very positive signal from the Cuban government that
perhaps they will be willing in the future to permit or use other
independent institutions such as the Catholic Church to somehow
intervene in negotiations for the release of prisoners and perhaps other
issues of importance to the Cuban people," says Francisco Jose
Hernandez, the president of the Cuban American National Foundation
(CANF) in Miami.

"In the past, the Cuban government has been totally against outside
interference pressuring them to act on any specific issue, especially
issues that may have some political involvement."

The announcement comes too late for hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo
in February, whose death brought worldwide condemnation from human
rights workers. But another hunger striker, Guillermo Farinas, who is
reported to be gravely ill from a strike he launched in February over
the situation of political prisoners in Cuba, will end his hunger strike
with the release of the 52 prisoners, according to a spokeswoman.

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