Cuba faces looming deadline for prisoner release

AP News
Posted: Oct 31, 2010 11:19 AM
Cuba faces looming deadline for prisoner release

Angel Moya has told relatives he will never stop fighting for political change in Cuba, and hopes to be a thorn in the government's side if he is released from jail. Hector Maseda's wife says he will leave prison only if his freedom is unconditional.

After releasing many of Cuba's best-known prisoners of conscience, the communist government has a week left to make good on a promise to clear Cuban jails of 52 activists, opposition leaders and social critics. Those that remain, however _ including Moya and Maseda _ may be the toughest releases yet for a government that describes dissidents as subversive U.S. agents bent on toppling the socialist system.

All of those released so far _ including 39 dissidents arrested in a 2003 crackdown and eight others arrested separately _ have agreed to go into exile in Spain along with their families.

But the last 13 prisoners from the 2003 crackdown seem bent on remaining in Cuba, a direct challenge to a government that would much prefer they take their views elsewhere.

"We want to stay in our homeland," Moya's wife, Bertha Soler, told The Associated Press. "The second he gets out of prison, he will continue his fight for democracy."

Cuba has been ruled by Fidel Castro and his brother Raul since they overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Moya, a 46-year-old construction worker who turned to dissent in the 1990s, is serving a 20-year sentence for treason and other charges. Soler is a leader of the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, which is comprised of the wives and mothers of prisoners of conscience.

Laura Pollan, another Damas leader, says she met with her jailed husband, Hector Maseda, on Oct. 17 and he told her that "he will not let anybody throw him out of his country."

She said her husband, who is 67 and also serving a 20-year term, would refuse to leave prison unless he is freed without any conditions.

"We won't accept parole," she said. "We want a pardon."

Cuban President Raul Castro agreed to release the prisoners after a July 7 meeting with Havana's Roman Catholic cardinal, Jaime Ortega, and then Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos. Their talks were held a few months after jailed dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo died following a long hunger strike.

At the time, the church said all 52 dissidents still in prison from the 2003 crackdown would be freed "within three to four months from this moment."

The church said the prisoners would be allowed to leave Cuba, but did not say exile was a requirement for release. Since then, family members of the prisoners say they have been contacted by church officials including Ortega himself and asked if they were willing to go to Spain. Those who said no remain jailed.

Cuba has won praise from European leaders for the deal, and even a grudging acknowledgment from Washington that it is moving in the right direction, though not quickly enough.

Now, the government has a tough decision to make before Nov. 7: Go back on its word and lose the international goodwill it has earned, or let the releases go forward and risk giving voice to a more vocal opposition while the country is in the midst of widespread layoffs and difficult economic changes.

While the church's announcement in July didn't expressly set Nov. 7 as the date for the government's promise to be completed, Catholic officials have said privately that they consider it to be the deadline. Dissidents express a similar view.

Guillermo Farinas, a dissident who won Europe's Sakharov human rights prize in October after staging his own 134-day hunger strike in support of the prisoners, told the AP last week that he will stop eating again Nov. 8 if the remaining dissidents are not in their homes.

The Damas de Blanco have also vowed increased activity if the government backs away from its promise.

"We are really approaching this kind of gladiator showdown, and it will be interesting to see who blinks," said Ann Louise Bardach, a Cuba expert at the Brookings Institute and author of the book "Without Fidel." "The Castros, and particularly Fidel, never blink ... but this is a situation where they may have to because of the economic pickle they are in."

The government has often allowed its most vocal detractors to leave the island, a strategy that has helped lower the tension level and keep the opposition marginalized.

In 1979, hundreds of political prisoners were freed into exile following a dialogue between Fidel Castro and the Cuban exile community. In 1984, the Rev. Jesse Jackson helped negotiate the release of 26 prisoners, most of whom left the island.

Some 300 Cuban prisoners _ about 80 of them dissidents _ were released following a historic visit by Pope John Paul II in 1998, and nearly all went into exile.

Partly as a result, Cuba's dissident community remains small and fractured, and enjoys little following on the island. Cuba's leaders characterize all the dissidents as mercenaries paid by Washington to destabilize the government.

Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which monitors dissident activity and advocates for the release of political prisoners, said the government faces no real threat from the presence of a dozen more activists.

He said Cuba's leaders have nothing to gain _ and everything to lose _ by keeping the last 13 prisoners in jail.

"By releasing them, the government improves its international image and removes a weight off its back. If it does not, it will gain only the world's condemnation," Sanchez said. "Not freeing them would be unthinkable."


Associated Press reporter Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this story.