Cuba frees prisoners as Castro makes rare appearance
Cuba put seven political opponents and their families on a plane to Spain on Tuesday as part of an accord to release 52 jailed dissidents, the biggest gesture of its kind in a decade.
In parallel to the release however, Cuba's revolutionary leader Fidel Castro made a rare television appearance in which he warned of an "imminent" US-Israeli attack on Iran and accused the United States over the sinking of a South Korean navy ship which has been blamed on Stalinist North Korea.
The seven political detainees and about 30 of their close relatives were to arrive in Madrid on Tuesday, an official at the Spanish embassy told AFP.
Six boarded a regular Air Europa flight to Spain while the seventh flew on an Iberia airlines flight, the diplomat said.
The release of the 52, if completed, would mark the culmination of a surprise deal between the Roman Catholic Church and the government last week after a hunger strike by dissident Guillermo Farinas.
Havana wants to avoid a repeat of the death in detention of dissident Orlando Zapata on February 23, as it seeks closer international ties to improve its grim economic situation.
The dissidents were held since Saturday at a hospital in a high-security prison in Havana where they underwent medical checks and migration procedures.
Family members, also examined by doctors, waited nervously at an Interior Ministry hotel southwest of Havana.
"Everything is so unexpected, no time to think, but I have my child and the luggage ready. The prisoners are happy," said Alida Viso, wife of prisoner Ricardo Gonzalez, of the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders.
Some observers saw the releases as potential shift away from decades of hardline policy by Fidel Castro and his brother President Raul Castro.
But critics shot down any such possibility.
"This does not imply a change in the repressive regime," said Angel De Fana, Miami-based director of the group Plantados of former Cuban political prisoners.
"These people are forced to leave because if they wanted to stay in Cuba, they would remain under a totalitarian regime and go back to being incarcerated."
The releases also came just as the elder revolutionary icon, who turns 84 next month, appeared on television for the first time in almost a year.
Castro, 83, appeared animated as he discussed for an hour his views on the Middle East and North Korea in a recorded interview with the anchor of the "Round Table" news and analysis show.
He appeared alert and healthy but had a wavering voice as he spoke of an "imminent" US and Israeli attack on Iran.
"This can be nothing less than a nuclear war," Fidel Castro argued.
He also said the United States secretly sank a South Korean warship in March, an incident widely blamed on North Korea.
The television appearance is "his way of saying 'I'm here,'" dissident Elizardo Sanchez told AFP.
Sanchez said the release of the dissidents was a kind of blackmail.
"These are prisoners of Castro. They should never have been imprisoned, they are innocent."
"We are concerned that this is barter -- prison for exile. Being uprooted has a negative impact on the family," Sanchez said.
Castro has made only sporadic appearances since emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006 forced him to hand power to younger brother Raul, now 79.
Despite the releases, Cuba continues to detain critics of the only one-party Communist regime in the Americas, and enforces censorship with an iron fist.
"We will continue fighting for those left behind," Irene Viera told AFP, surrounded by piles of suitcases and telephones ringing off the hook. The wife of prisoner Julio Galvez said she had not slept in days.
Sanchez, of the outlawed information clearinghouse Cuban Committee for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said some dissidents want to seek medical care in Spain before returning to Cuba, while others expect to stay in Spain.
Raul Castro has pledged the dissidents would be allowed to return to Cuba with special permits, and would not lose their property in Cuba as is normally the case for emigrants.
Church officials have said that so far, 20 of the 52 had agreed to leave for Spain.
After the surprise deal, one of the regime's fiercest critics, psychologist and journalist Farinas, ended a more than four-month hunger strike.
© 2010 AFP