HAVANA TIMES, June 2 (IPS) — A European diplomat speaking anonymously told IPS that the relocation of six imprisoned opponents of the Cuban government “represents a positive step in the direction of the release of all political prisoners in Cuba, which we hope will occur soon.”
Another European source, however, took a more cautious stance, pointing out that no timeframe or deadlines were set in the talks between the Catholic Church authorities and government officials that began in mid-May.
On Tuesday, the office of the archbishop of Havana said six prisoners were being moved to penitentiaries closer to their homes. The inmates form part of the group of 75 dissidents handed lengthy sentences in 2003 on charges of treason for conspiring with the United States to destabilize the government.
According to the Havana archbishop’s office, the prisoners who have begun to be relocated are Felix Navarro, José Luis Garcia, Ivan Adolfo Hernandez, Diosdado Gonzalez, Arnaldo Ramos and Antonio Diaz.
The European diplomats who spoke to IPS welcomed the first results of the talks between Cardinal Jaime Ortega and President Raul Castro, through which the Church aims to improve the situation of imprisoned dissidents, and to secure the eventual release of at least those prisoners who are ill.
“It is important that this first step has been taken,” said one of the sources, who all spoke on condition of anonymity. “Most European Union diplomats are watching the process launched by the talks between the Catholic Church and the authorities with great interest, and see it as a positive thing.”
According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, headed by dissident activist Elizardo Sanchez, there are 200 people imprisoned for political reasons on the island. But the government claims that all dissidents are mercenaries in the pay of Washington and does not recognize the existence of political prisoners.
After a more than four-hour meeting with Castro on May 19, Ortega told journalists that they were not “discussing commitments.” But he said the “talks with the government got off to a magnificent start and should continue in the near future.
“The Church is interested in alleviating the situation of the prisoners, which could include the release of some of them,” he added. “That is what is being discussed.”
The president of the Cuban bishops’ conference, Dionisio Garcia, also participated in the meeting.
Ramos, a 68-year-old prisoner who is serving an 18-year sentence, was moved Tuesday from Sancti Spiritus to Havana, Berta Soler, one of the founders of the imprisoned dissidents’ wives group Ladies in White, told IPS.
Ramos, as well as Diaz and Garcia, have health problems, she said.
“These transfers are a positive step, a stride forward,” said Soler, the wife of Angel Moya, who was given a 20-year sentence. “They open the door for the process to continue.”
One of the achievements brought about by the Church’s mediation was a halt to rallies that government supporters held to block the weekly demonstrations by the Ladies in White, when they go to mass on Sunday at a church in Havana.
The arrests of the 75 dissidents, 53 of whom are still in prison, occurred at a time of tension with the U.S. administration of George W. Bush (2001-2009) and coincided with several hijackings of planes and boats by people trying to make it to the United States. One of the incidents led to the death penalty being applied to three out of eight men who tried to hijack a passenger ferry.
Of the original 75, one has served out his complete sentence, and 21 were released on health grounds. Several are now living abroad.
The EU protested the severe sentences handed the dissidents — between six and 28 years in prison — by stiffening its policy towards Cuba with a series of diplomatic measures that included invitations to members of opposition groups to holiday receptions in European embassies.
This public recognition of dissident groups led to the breakdown of relations between Cuba and the EU. But a diplomatic thaw began in 2005, and talks resumed in 2008.
Spain, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU until the end of June, is attempting to break down the last hurdle to full normalization of relations by urging the European bloc to drop its common position on Cuba, which seeks “to encourage a process of transition to pluralist democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” of the Cuban people.
The question of human rights in Cuba has been in the headlines in the past few months, after a prisoner, Orlando Zapata, died in late February on the 85th day of a hunger strike held to demand that he be considered a prisoner of conscience.
His death triggered widespread international condemnation and what Havana describes as a media “smear campaign” led by Washington and Brussels.
Immediately after Zapata’s death, anti-government protester Guillermo Fariñas began a hunger strike to demand the release of 26 political prisoners who are ill. He has been in the hospital in his hometown of Santa Clara since March. Last week he accepted the Catholic Church’s offer to mediate with the government to find a solution to his protest.