Cuba To Release 52 Political Prisoners

Melissa Block talks to reporter Nick Miroff about Cuba's reported promised to free 52 political prisoners — five now and the rest over the next few months. The agreement was announced by Cuba's Catholic Church. The release would be the largest release of dissidents in more than a decade.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The Cuban government has agreed to free 52 political prisoners. That's according to Catholic Church leaders on the island. It's the largest amnesty in more than a decade. It would bring the number of political prisoners in Cuban jails to its lowest levels since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. The move is a result of new dialogue between the church and Raul Castro's government, and it also has implications for U.S.-Cuba relations.

Reporter Nick Miroff covers Cuba, and he joins us to tell us more.

Nick, tell us more about, first, the announcement yesterday from the Catholic Church. What did they say?

NICK MIROFF: Well, the church sent out the announcement yesterday around noon indicating that a small group of prisoners were likely to be released in the next few days, and that over the course of the next three or four months, a total of 52 prisoners would be released. And again, that's the largest amnesty since Pope John Paul II's visit in 1998.

BLOCK: And what do you make of the timing? Why now?

MIROFF: Well, I think there are several factors at work here. Keep in mind that Cuba has been under a lot of international pressure and faced a great deal of condemnation.

In February, after the death of hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo, there's also been another hunger striker named Guillermo Farinas who's gone now 130-odd days without food, and then there are some other international factors at work here.

One is that the U.S. Congress is going to be considering a bill that would lift the travel ban that prevents Americans from traveling to Cuba. And the Spanish government is leading a push to change the European Union's common position on Cuba and that would eventually lead to a normalization of relations.

BLOCK: I did read reaction from a human rights activist in Cuba calling these cosmetic actions implying that they don't really mean much and they're for foreign consumption. Do you think it really signals an opening of the government of Raul Castro in any way?

MIROFF: Well, I think it's a step. I think that Raul Castro would like to initiate some reforms. He's already shown more of a willingness to allow for greater dialogue in Cuba about economic changes. I think he'd like to be seen as a figure who modernizes the socialist system that his brother created.

While I do think that this gesture is partly designed to improve Cuba's image abroad, I think that this also signals an incremental opening, so to speak. Keep in mind that Cuba's political system remains intact and that there's still very little tolerance for dissent and any kind of opposition activity in Cuba, but this does represent an incremental change.

BLOCK: And assuming that these 52 political prisoners are, in fact, released, what do you assume would happen next?

MIROFF: Well, it's unclear. Catholic Church leaders have said that the 52 political prisoners will have the option to leave Cuba if they want to.

Again, they're going to be released over the next three to four months. It's not clear why the government is going to wait so long to release them, and it's also unclear whether once they're out, they will resume the kind of political activism that landed them in jail in the first place. It will be something to follow in the next few months to see if the release of these prisoners does result in an increase in pro-democracy activism within Cuba.

BLOCK: Nick Miroff covers Cuba for us. He joined us today from Mexico City. Nick, thanks very much.

MIROFF: Thanks, Melissa. It's good to be with you.

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