Church in Cuba hopes for more progress on inmates
By PAUL HAVEN
Associated Press Writer
HAVANA -- Cuba's Roman Catholic Church hopes the government will make
more concessions to improve the lot of the island's 200 political
prisoners, with a church official saying Thursday that the recent
transfer of some to jails closer to home has "raised expectations" for
"We continue to hope that gestures like the first one they made
continue," Orlando Marquez, a church official in Havana, said at a news
conference. "Any gesture they make would be welcomed by the church ...
which wants to improve the situation for the prisoners and their families."
The church has suddenly raised its profile on Cuba's political scene,
particularly in regard to dissidents.
Last month, Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega helped negotiate the end to a
standoff between the government and the Ladies in White, comprised of
the wives and mothers of 75 people arrested in a 2003 crackdown on dissent.
Ortega and another church leader later met with Cuban President Raul
Castro and the church announced that the government would move political
prisoners to lockups closer to their homes, as well as granting
prisoners better access to medical care.
Six prisoners have been transferred so far, fewer than many family
members had hoped. There has been no word yet of increased access to
medical care. The Cuban government, which considers the dissidents to be
paid stooges of Washington, has had no comment.
Speculation has grown that the government might take more steps during
or around a visit to the island next week by the Vatican's foreign
minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti.
Marquez would not say whether the church expects such a move.
"We've never talked about a date or marked down on a calendar when these
things will happen," he said. "Whenever these gestures are made they
will be welcome, independent of the visit of Monsignor Mamberti or if
they are made before, after or during."
Still, Marquez made clear the church thinks the concessions will continue.
"Once they made the first step, they raised expectations," he said.
"Even though no other gestures have been made up until now on prisoner
transfers, there is nothing to indicate that the process has stopped."
Mamberti is the first top Vatican official to come to Cuba since
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of state to Pope Benedict XVI,
visited the island in February 2008. He is scheduled to meet with Cuban
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, and hold talks on the island's
economic challenges and the effects of emigration and the families torn
apart by it.
Relations between the church and Cuba's government have often been
strained. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed
references to atheism in the constitution and allowed believers of all
faiths to join the Communist Party. They warmed more when Pope John Paul
II visited Cuba in 1998.