Spain's top diplomat upbeat on Cuba visit to free prisoners

6th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Spain's top diplomat was upbeat Tuesday that he would achieve results on a Cuba visit aiming to free political prisoners and save the life of a hunger-striker who is defying the communist government.

"I'm convinced that the days of the visit to Cuba will be positive, will be successful, both for Cuba and for Spain," Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos told reporters here.

Hunger striking Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas, who is said to be close to death, has been refusing food since February while demanding the release of 25 political prisoners with failing health.

Farinas's deteriorating condition has unusually been reported in the official communist party newspaper Granma in an attempt, say observers, to defuse international criticism should he die.

Moratinos is to hold talks with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, and the archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega.

A meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro "is not yet confirmed," the Spanish foreign ministry has said.

Moratinos' visit has raised hopes that more Cuban prisoners will be released.

The Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission (CCDHRN) -- an outlawed but tolerated group -- estimates there are 167 political prisoners in the Caribbean nation of more than 11 million people.

The group's leader, Elizardo Sanchez, said "there is a high likelihood" Havana will set free 30-40 political prisoners in coming "days or weeks."

Moratinos said that if his visit was a success, it would help toward lifting the EU common position on Cuba, which has, since 1996, conditioned relations between the European Union and Cuba on advances in Cuba's human rights situation.

Rodriguez said that the common position was an insurmountable obstacle to normalizing relations with the European Union.

Spain wants to replace the deal with a bilateral cooperation agreement but many other EU nations have opposed taking a softer stand on Cuba.

Their opposition was reinforced following the death in February of leading Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata after a long hunger strike and the start of another hunger strike by Farinas.

Moratinos' visit comes after Havana said that Farinas was also close to death, after 133 days on a hunger strike.

"The only people who will be responsible for my death are brothers (former president) Fidel and (President) Raul Castro," Farinas, 48, said in a statement released on an opposition blog on Monday.

While Moratinos is not scheduled to meet with Farinas, the diplomat has said that his delegation would be in touch with the dissident's entourage and seek for him to end the hunger strike.

"Unfortunately Farinas' health won't hold up much more, nor will that of some prisoners," said Licet Zamora, Farinas's spokeswoman, to AFP on Tuesday.

Spanish media have reported that France and Italy would take released prisoners if there was a deal, but officials believe most would depart for the United States. Chile also has said it would take in some of those freed.

Cuban authorities consider the dissidents a threat to national security, and claim the prisoners are "mercenaries" on Washington's pay, out to smear the Cuban government.

The international outcry over both hunger strikes and pressures from the Catholic Church led the Castro regime last month to free a paraplegic dissident and transfer 12 other prisoners to jails closer to their homes.

© 2010 AFP

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