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Cardinal, Cuban leader discuss prisoner release

By David Ariosto, CNN
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Cardinal in talks with Raul Castro
  • Cardinal Jaime Ortega says he and President Raul Castro had four-hour meeting
  • Ortega calls Wednesday's discussions a "magnificent start"
  • Meeting comes less than month before expected visit by Vatican's foreign minister

Havana Cuba (CNN) -- Cuba's Roman Catholic cardinal says he is in discussions with President Raul Castro to liberate some of the country's jailed dissidents.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega said Wednesday's rare four-hour meeting was a "magnificent start" to talks with the Cuban government about the potential liberation of some of the dissidents.

"You may understand that the church is interested to produce relief for situation of the prisoners," Ortega said at a news conference Thursday in Havana. "Something that could include the liberation of some of them. And this is what we were talking about directly."

Ortega and Archbishop Dionisio Garcia sat down with the Cuban leader less than one month before an expected visit by the Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti.

Earlier this month, Ortega successfully negotiated a rare agreement with government authorities that allowed a group of women protesters to march.

The protesters -- who call themselves the "Ladies in White" -- are the relatives and friends of dissidents imprisoned in a 2003 government crackdown .They march every Sunday.

Until Ortega's negotiation, the marches had drawn the ire of hundreds of pro-government demonstrators who surrounded the women and drowned out their chants with slogans like "This street belongs to Fidel."

The communist island's relations with the Catholic church have been historically strained, though they softened in the 1990s when references to atheism were removed from the Cuban constitution and Pope John Paul II made a visit in 1998.