Cuba to release prisoners as Castro makes rare TV outing
The first of 52 political prisoners the Cuban government agreed to free will leave for Madrid late Monday in the largest such release in the communist island in a decade.
The 11 activists are part of a group of 20 who have agreed so far to emigrate to Spain along with about 65 relatives.
They will depart Havana on Iberia and Air Europa flights at 9:00 pm and 10:00 pm (0100 and 0200 GMT Tuesday) and will arrive on Tuesday, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said.
The Church added three more names to the group due to be released "soon" to Madrid: Jesus Mostafa, who had been sentenced to 25 years behind bars, Omar Rodriguez (27-year sentence) and Antonio Diaz (20-year sentence).
Their release will be the culmination of a surprise deal between the Catholic Church and the government struck last week after a politically embarrassing hunger strike to near-death by dissident Guillermo Farinas.
Havana is keen to avoid being caught red-faced again with another dissident's death after Orlando Zapata's demise on February 23, as it desperately seeks closer international ties to improve its grim economic situation.
The dissidents have been held since Saturday at a hospital of the high-security Combinado del Este prison in Havana, the country's largest, where they underwent medical checks and immigration procedures.
Family members, also examined by doctors, were waiting nervously at an Interior Ministry hotel in San Antonio de los Banos, southwest of Havana, except those of four inmates in the capital who were at home awaiting a call from authorities to leave for the airport.
"Everything is so unexpected, no time to think, but I have the child and the luggage ready. The prisoners are happy," said Alida Viso, the wife of prisoner Ricardo Gonzalez, of the freedom-of-the-press group Reporters Without Borders.
Observers were eager to glimpse in the planned release a policy shift away from decades of hardline policy by ailing Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and his brother, President Raul Castro.
But critics shot down any such possibilities
"This does not imply a change in the repressive regime," said Angel De Fana, the 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 revolutionary icon, who turns 84 this month, was due to appear on television for the first time in almost a year on Monday.
"It's his way of saying 'I'm here.' They are prisoners of Castro. They should never have been imprisoned, they are innocent," dissident Elizardo Sanchez told AFP. "We are concerned that this is barter -- prison for exile. Being uprooted has a negative impact on the family."
Castro has made only sporadic appearances -- either on television or in public -- since emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006 drove him to hand power to his younger brother Raul.
But despite the releases, Cuba continues to detain critics of the only one-party Communist regime in the Americas, often without charge, 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.
Castro 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, said Moratinos, who traveled to Cuba to participate in last week's negotiations.
He told reporters on Monday that Spain would provide "logistical support" to the former political prisoners and their families through the Red Cross and the Spanish Commission for Assistance to Refugees.
On learning of the surprise church-state deal, one of the regime's fiercest critics, psychologist Guillermo Farinas, ended his 4.5-month hunger strike last week and drank water for the first time. He had been surviving in hospital on an intravenous drip.
© 2010 AFP