The Spanish foreign minister has said his country is willing to take in 52 political prisoners set for release by the Cuban government. The decision to free the prisoners could improve relations with Europe and the US.
This release of dissidents is the largest since 1998
Cuba has agreed to free 52 political prisoners after a meeting between Cuban President Raul Castro and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and brokered by the Catholic Church.
Five prisoners were released immediately and would travel "shortly" to Spain with their families, Cardinel Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana announced. The remaining 47 dissidents will be freed within the next three to four months, a church statement said.
The 52 prisoners are part of a group of 75 dissidents who were sentenced to jail terms of between six and 28 years in Cuba. The Cuban government claimed they were "mercenaries" working in the interest of foreign nations, such as the United States.
Spanish Foreign Minister Moratinos said this was "a new era" for communist Cuba, and said that Castro had assured him the exiles and their relatives would be able to return to visit Cuba and their property would not be confiscated. These measures imply a change of Cuban policy.
The Roman Catholic Church have been integral in talks to free the dissidents
The Catholic Church statement announcing the release did not identify the political prisoners to be freed, nor did it mention Guillermo Farinas, a current prisoner on hunger strike. Farinas is reportedly near death after a several month-long strike and has said he may stop once the first prisoners are released.
The Cuban government has insisted it would not be "blackmailed," however, it is keen to deflect attention from Farinas' case, which has drawn international outcry.
The Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission - an illegal but tolerated pressure group in Cuba - estimates there are 167 political prisoners in the country.
Imprisonment of political prisoners is one of the main stumbling blocks in Cuba's relations with Europe and the United States.
Author: Catherine Bolsover (AFP/dpa/Reuters)
Editor: Nancy Isenson