Tense Wait for Cuba Prisoners Release

Patricia Grogg

Havana conversation.

HAVANA TIMES, Nov 9 (IPS) — The families of the last 13 Cuban dissidents set to be released from prison are experiencing “tension, but we have not lost hope that they might be freed at any moment.

“We are women full of faith and hope,” Berta Soler, the wife of Angel Moya, one of the 13 dissidents whose release is pending, told IPS.

She said the deadline set in talks between the government and the Catholic Church has expired, and that the delay is apparently due to the inmates’ refusal to go into exile in Spain.

The 13, who have been in prison for over seven years, are the last remaining inmates of an original group of 75 government opponents found guilty in 2003 of treason for conspiring with the United States to destabilize the government and sentenced to between six and 28 years in prison.

“We are all waiting in our provinces for news. There are four of us here in Havana,” added Soler, who belongs to the group known as the Ladies in White, made up of wives and other relatives of the imprisoned opponents. In her view, the government “will look like a liar in the eyes of the world” if it does not free them.

Soler spoke with her husband on the phone at noon Monday. “He told me no prison authority had visited him lately to talk about his possible release. He is prepared to serve the remaining 13 years of his sentence.”

The Ladies in White threatened to hold protests to press for their release.

After the talks that began May 19 between President Raul Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, the Cuban government agreed to free the 52 of the original 75 prisoners who were still in jail.

The rest had already been released on parole for health reasons.

The inmates’ prison conditions immediately improved as a result of the talks.

On Jul. 7, coinciding with the visit to the Cuban capital by then foreign minister of Spain Miguel Angel Moratinos, Ortega announced that the authorities had agreed to release the prisoners “in a period of three to four months from now.”

According to the prisoners’ families and dissident groups, that deadline lapsed on Sunday. “Oscar Elias Biscet, (one of the 75) gave away all his belongings, and his food, everything, thinking that he was about to be released,” a former imprisoned opponent, Marta Beatriz Roque, told journalists.

Roque, the only woman in the group of 75, was granted conditional release in 2004 for medical reasons.

On Sunday, she accompanied around 30 Ladies in White to mass in the Santa Rita church in the Havana neighborhood of Miramar, and in their regular weekly protest march along several blocks. They were not heckled by Castro supporters, as they have been on other occasions.

“The Church tells us to have hope, that they believe, as the Spanish embassy does, that the deadline will be met, that they will be released,” Laura Pollan, the wife of imprisoned dissident Hector Maseda, told reporters outside the church. “But neither the Church nor the Spanish government knows anything about what is going on.”

Soler told IPS that on Friday they had spoken with the archbishop’s spokesman, Orlando Marquez. “He told us that this is a moment of peace and prayer. The Church can give us encouragement, but it is the government who has the last word.”

Elizardo Sánchez, the president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a dissident group, agrees that the only thing to do is to wait.

But “That does not mean refraining from speaking out and calling for the release of these people who have been adopted as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International,” he commented to IPS.

Sanchez said that once the last 13 dissidents are released, there will be no more prisoners of conscience in Cuba.

So far, 53 prisoners have been set free, including 14 doing time on charges including terrorism that did not fall under the agreement with the Church. All of them were immediately flown to Spain, along with their families.

In his only public reference to the issue, President Castro told the legislature in late August that the release of the prisoners formed part of a “sovereign decision that strictly adheres to Cuba’s laws.” He also said no one had been sentenced for their views or ideas.

The talks with the Church helped ease tension generated early this year by the death of a prisoner, Orlando Zapata, after an 85-day hunger strike held to demand recognition as a political prisoner.

After Zapata died on Feb. 23, a government opponent, Guillermo Fariñas, declared a hunger strike in his home in the central city of Santa Clara, pressing for the release of political prisoners who were in poor health.

He called off his hunger strike on Jul. 8, after the agreement to free the dissidents was announced. During much of his protest he was in the intensive care unit in the hospital in his province.