By Marc Frank in Havana
Published: June 22 2010 03:34
There are growing expectations that Cuba will soon release political
prisoners after a visit by a senior Vatican official last week, part of
an unprecedented dialogue between communist authorities and the Catholic
Dominique Mamberti, Vatican foreign minister, met President Raúl Castro
and Bruno Rodriguez, the Cuban foreign minister, on Sunday afternoon at
the end of a five-day visit. He took part in a church conference in
which Cuban intellectuals, including US exiles, discussed improving
relations with the diaspora and the social and economic situation on the
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"The church expects a number of prisoners to be released soon, though it
may be after the visit as the cardinal stated his efforts were
unrelated," a European diplomat said.
The Obama administration has made the release of political prisoners a
condition for improving relations.
The European Union last week put on hold any decision over whether to
change its position on Cuba, which carries sanctions, citing the ongoing
efforts of the church.
Church and diplomatic sources said the visit appeared warm. "The visit
alone is unlikely to produce a dramatic outcome but it lends Vatican
support to the Cuban church's push for improvements in human rights and
economic policies," said Phil Peters, Cuba expert at the Virginia-based
Lexington Institute think-tank.
"The fact that the Cuban government openly acknowledges its talks with
the bishops on these topics makes it the most interesting and promising
political development in Cuba in years."
Archbishop Mamberti repeatedly praised the talks, as did Mr Rodriguez.
The Catholic church does not enjoy the support in Cuba that it has
elsewhere in the region, but it is by far the largest organisation on
the island espousing a different ideology than the ruling Communist party.
The church publishes numerous provincial magazines that are often
critical of the government and daily life. It has continued to seek more
media access and to set up schools, to no avail.
Archbishop Mamberti's visit came after the release of one of Cuba's
estimated 190 political prisoners for health reasons and the transfer of
12 others to jails closer to their homes, moves requested by Cuban
Cardinal Jaime Ortega during a May 19 meeting with Mr Castro.
Cardinal Ortega characterised his meeting with Mr Castro as a
"magnificent beginning of an ongoing process ... a recognition of the
role of the church as an interlocutor", adding the four-hour
conversation focused on domestic issues, not church-state grievances as
in the past, and included the issue of political prisoners. "The church
is interested in a general easing of the situation of the prisoners ...
including not only the sick,'' Cardinal Ortega said.
Archbishop Mamberti's official reason for coming to Cuba was to mark the
75th anniversary of the start of Vatican-Cuba diplomatic relations.