Cuban President Raul Castro announced on Friday, December 24, the release of 2,900 prisoners, while hinting that his government may be ready to lift strict travel restrictions on the country's citizens.
The amnesty, which is to include 86 foreign nationals and is due to take place in the coming days, was a "humanitarian" gesture, Castro said in a closing address to the National Assembly.
Castro said factors that played into the pardon decision included requests from the Catholic Church and various Protestant churches, and the anticipation of the visit by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
The pardon is the largest ever under the communist regime, much larger that the 299 prisoners released ahead of the visit of the late pope John Paul II in January 1998.
Cubans were intensely and emotionally keen to hear about migration reform, which Castro - the ex-defense chief who took over from his brother, revolutionary icon Fidel Castro, in July 2006 - has promised but not yet delivered.
"I reaffirm my unswerving will to gradually introduce the changes required in this complicated area," Raul Castro said, though neither the communist government nor the state-run media have given details of the reforms being considered.
Many people "consider a new migratory policy an urgent issue, forgetting the exceptional circumstances that Cuba is going through," he added.
Local experts believe Castro intends to end the requirement of exit visas (for Cubans on the island), entrance visas (for Cubans living overseas who return home) and the legal status of "permanent emigrant."
Cubans usually can only leave the country when they have received a letter of invitation from overseas. Then they have to file a request for an exit visa, just at the start of a maze-like bureaucratic process that costs about 500 euros ($650).
That fee is nearly unaffordable in Cuba, where doctors and street cleaners alike make about 20 dollars a month.
Author: Gabriel Borrud (AFP, dpa)
Editor: Toma Tasovac