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And now to Cuba, where communist authorities have released an ailing political prisoner and moved a dozen others to jails closer to their families. The modest gestures were the result of a new dialogue between the Castro government and the Catholic Church leaders on the island.

It's a sign that the church is expanding its role in Cuban politics. And that's been underscored by a visit this week from the Vatican's foreign minister. But it's not clear how much the church can do to change the government's hard line stance against dissent. Nick Miroff reports from Havana.

NICK MIROFF: The mood in Laura Pollan's small central Havana home is rarely this cheerful.

Ms. LAURA POLLAN (Leader, Ladies in White): (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: Pollan is a leader of the Ladies in White, made up of the wives and relatives of Cuba's political prisoners. Over the weekend, Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega called Pollan with good news: Her jailed husband, Hector Maceda, was being transferred closer to home.

Cuban church leaders negotiated with authorities last month to allow the Ladies in White to resume their weekly protest marches, after facing repeated harassment and abuse from government-organized mobs. A few weeks later, President Raul Castro held a rare meeting with Cardinal Ortega and pledged to improve conditions for political prisoners.

Ms. POLLAN: (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: Pollan says she's glad she won't have to travel far to see her husband now. But she says her real goal is to get her husband and others freed. These prisoners shouldn't be transferred to different jails, she said. They should be transferred to their homes.

The prisoners are part of a group of 75 government opponents who were swept up in a March 2003 crackdown. Fifty-two are still behind bars. One is the husband of Julia Nunez, who says she'll no longer have to travel 300 miles from Havana to see him.

Ms. JULIA NUNEZ: (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: Nunez says she and other Ladies in White haven't lost faith that the prisoners who are in poor health will be released, and that others will follow.

Since the church negotiations began, the government has only freed one activist, Ariel Sigler, whose health had deteriorated so severely in prison that he's now in a wheelchair. He arrived home in a government ambulance Saturday, looking spectral and gaunt.

Church officials have been eager to avoid appearing as if they're pressuring the government to move faster. And at a Havana press conference last week, church spokesman Orlando Marquez said there was no timetable for the prisoner releases.

Mr. ORLANDO MARQUEZ (Spokesman, Catholic Church): (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: We've always said that this is a process, Marquez explained, and it won't necessarily move forward at the same speed. But the process has begun, he said.

Vatican Foreign Minister Dominique Mamberti is expected to quietly press for the release of more prisoners during his official visit to Cuba this week. The church has also organized a conference bringing together prominent Cuban scholars, including several from U.S. universities, to discuss issues like economic reform and national reconciliation.

Mr. MARQUEZ: (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: The purpose of the conference, said Marquez, would be to help the church develop its social mission on the island, not a political one.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in Spanish)

MIROFF: For now, these weekly protests by a few dozen Ladies in White and their supporters remain the only public demonstrations tolerated by the Cuban government. The women say the marches, like this one Sunday along Havana's Fifth Avenue, will continue until all political prisoners are freed.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in Spanish)

MIROFF: The Cuban government hasn't commented on its plans for the prisoners and considers them traitors and mercenaries of the United States. But negotiating with the church may be a way for Castro to make reforms without appearing to cave to pressure from abroad. Their moves will be closely watched by the Obama administration, which has pegged any changes in U.S. policy to human rights improvements on the island.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff, in Havana.

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