Freed Cuba dissidents forced to delay Spain arrival

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Busy airplanes have forced a group of freed Cuban dissidents due to arrive in Madrid Tuesday to delay their travel plans by a few days, the Spanish foreign ministry said.

A group of eight former prisoners and 36 family members were due to leave Cuba's capital Havana on Monday, but there were not enough places left on outbound flights from the Caribbean island.

Their arrival in Madrid has been pushed back to Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, while a ninth dissident should make the trip at a later date.

Last week, 11 former prisoners and their families arrived in the Spanish capital, and the group have appealed for the European Union "to not soften their demands for democratic changes in Cuba."

The EU suspended ties with Cuba after a major roundup of 75 dissidents in March 2003, but resumed aid cooperation in 2008.

Spain has long advocated that the EU change its "common policy" on Cuba, arguing that dialogue with Havana is the best way to encourage change.

But several other EU member states, such as Sweden and the Czech Republic, as well as Cuban human rights groups, oppose such a move.

The 11 dissidents are part of a larger group of 52 which Cuba announced on July 7 it would release under a deal it reached with the Roman Catholic Church and Spain.

Spain is the former colonial power in the island -- the only one-party Communist regime in the Americas -- and its largest foreign investor.

The deal came after dissident hunger striker Guillermo Farinas nearly starved to death -- and before the 27-nation EU carries out its annual review of its policy towards Cuba in September.

If Havana lets all 52 dissidents go it will be the largest release of political prisoners in Cuba since 1998 when 300 dissidents were spared jail time following a visit by then-pope John Paul II.

Havana wants to avoid a repeat of the death in detention of political prisoner Orlando Zapata on February 23, who died on hunger strike.

Spain has said it is willing to receive all 52 freed detainees, who were sentenced in 2003 to prison terms of between six and 28 years.

© 2010 AFP

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