Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Freeing of Dissidents May Not Mean a Freer Cuba in a Gesture to Pope, Castro Will Pardon 300 Prisoners. Releases Began on Friday

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Freeing of Dissidents May Not Mean a Freer Cuba in a Gesture to Pope, Castro Will Pardon 300 Prisoners. Releases Began on Friday

Article excerpt

Tipping his olive-green cap to Pope John Paul II, Cuban President Fidel Castro has begun an anticipated and unusually large release of political prisoners.

The question now is whether this is merely another in a history of similar gestures toward prominent foreign visitors, or whether it represents a shift in the dictatorship's treatment of political dissidence.

The scant commentary coming so far from official Cuban sources seems to indicate the former. But the government move is nevertheless raising hopes across Cuba. "This is a very positive gesture, and we are hopeful that it will prove to be more than just that, but rather the continuation of a gradual transformation in the Cuban system," says Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a prominent dissident group. "What must happen is a reform of the Cuban penal code and judicial system so that the freedom of association, the freedom of expression and of the press, are no longer crimes," he adds. "Otherwise, the prisons will just fill up again." The Cuban government began releasing Friday what it said would be about 300 pardoned criminals, including common criminals and prisoners of conscience. The release was announced by both Havana and the Vatican, and was characterized as a gesture to the pope following his January visit to Cuba. During the visit, the Vatican presented a list of 270 prisoners for whom it sought clemency. In commenting on the Cuban government's decision, the Vatican called it "unprecedented." But in fact it mirrors gestures that have followed the visits of other foreign dignitaries whom Mr. Castro has wished to oblige. Similar (though smaller) releases followed the 1995 visit of former French first lady Danielle Mitterrand and the 1984 visit of Jesse Jackson. …

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