Cuban dissidents arrive in Spain hailing 'new stage'
Seven Cuban dissidents hailed their release as the start of a new era for the island nation after they arrived in Spain on Tuesday, the first of 52 political prisoners that Havana has agreed to free.
The men flashed victory signs after they arrived at Madrid airport on two separate commercial flights along with 33 family members as part of the biggest release of political prisoners by Cuba's communist government in a decade.
"This signifies the start of a new stage for the future of Cuba and all Cubans," they said in a joint statement read out by one of the seven dissidents, 65-year-old journalist Julio Cesar Galvez.
"We hope that those who remain in Cuba will enjoy the same freedom as we do."
The seven dissidents, who are between the ages of 33 and 65, were sentenced in 2003 to prison terms of between 15 and 24 years.
All of them have health problems and two ambulances were on standby at the airport in case they were needed.
In a surprise deal with the Roman Catholic Church, Cuba agreed last Wednesday to gradually free 52 political prisoners. The agreement came as dissident Guillermo Farinas came close to death on hunger strike.
On learning of the surprise church-state deal, psychologist and online journalist Farinas -- one of the regime's fiercest critics -- ended his hunger strike, which had lasted more than four months.
Havana, which is seeking international ties to improve its grim economic situation, wants to avoid a repeat of the death in detention of dissident Orlando Zapata.
He died on February 23 died on the 85th day of a hunger strike.
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said another four Cuban dissidents would arrive in Spain over the next two days along with their family members.
Cuba had demonstrated a desire "to wrap up the release of political prisoners...and advance with social and economic reforms," he told parliament.
But longtime critics of the regime said it was too soon to tell if the agreement marked a policy shift away from decades of hardline policy by ailing Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and his brother, President Raul Castro.
"We have to be cautious and wait to see how things evolve," said Carlos Alberto Montaner, a writer and professor who heads the Union Liberal Cubana (ULC), a political party founded in Madrid in 1989 by a group of Cuban exiles.
"Let us hope that it is the beginning of of a correction of the Cuban government's repressive policies but we must remain alert because it is not the annulment of the policy of repression but instead a change in the way the policy is enforced," he told AFP.
"They have substituted it with harassment, beatings, acts of rejection, intimidation, instead of imprisonments," he added.
The US State Department on Tuesday welcomed the release of the seven dissidents, saying it was a "positive development" and called for the "immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners".
According to Cuban dissidents, even after all the 52 dissidents are released there will still be 115 political prisoners in Cuba -- the only one-party Communist regime in the Americas.
Ricardo Gonzalez, 60, who was serving a 20-year jail term, said he and the six other dissidents who arrived in Madrid would continue to campaign for change in Cuba.
"For us, exile is the extension of our struggle. We are the path which could lead to change," he said.
Spain, which helped broker the deal between the Cuban government and the Church, has said it is willing to receive all of the prisoners on their release.
Church officials have said that so far that 20 of the 52 had agreed to leave Cuba, a former Spanish colony, for Spain.
© 2010 AFP