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Church: Cuba to free political prisoners

From David Ariosto, CNN
Laura Pollan, leader of Cuba's Ladies in White, talks by phone in Havana with dissident Guillermo Farinas on Wednesday.
Laura Pollan, leader of Cuba's Ladies in White, talks by phone in Havana with dissident Guillermo Farinas on Wednesday.
  • NEW: Cuban dissident Farinas may be "more flexible" with hunger strike, lawyer says
  • Prisoner release announced by the church would be one of Cuba's largest
  • The announcement followed a meeting that included Spain's foreign minister
  • Discussion of a release began in May, sparked by cardinal's meeting with Raul Castro

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Fifty-two Cuban political prisoners are set to be freed and will be allowed to leave the country, Cuba's Roman Catholic church announced Wednesday in a written statement. It would be one of Cuba's largest prisoner releases in recent history.

The announcement coincides with a visit by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who met earlier Wednesday with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, Cuban President Raul Castro and the island's Roman Catholic cardinal, Jaime Ortega.

Ortega had met with Castro in May, describing it as a "magnificent start" to talks surrounding the potential release of some of the nation's jailed dissidents.

Last month, Cuba released dissident Darsi Ferrer and ailing prisoner Ariel Sigler, who is awaiting approval from the U.S. government to join family members in Florida.

Sigler's release drew praise from the U.S. State Department, which called it "a positive development." The two countries broke off diplomatic relations in 1961 but maintain "interests sections" in Havana and Washington that operate like embassies.

Video: Cuban political prisoners to be freed?
  • Havana
  • Cuba
  • Cuban Politics
  • Raul Castro

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana was not immediately available for comment on Wednesday's announcement of prisoner releases. Human rights issues have long been a sticking point in normalizing relations between the two countries.

But Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and the chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979 until 1982, praised the move. "I think we're moving in the right direction," Smith told CNN in a telephone interview. He cited the fact that some rights activists have been able to send e-mails to the United States as indicative of a trend.

Smith noted that the founder of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission, Elizardo Sanchez, has recently put the number of political prisoners at 167. "That's as low as it's been since 1960," Smith said. "So that, again, indicates a trend, a move in a direction, in a good direction."

He called on the Obama administration to "do something to encourage the trend," such as loosening restrictions on travel to the island.

And he credited the Catholic Church for having worked to effect change by entering into a "respectful dialogue" with the Cuban government. "That's what's needed," he said.

Wednesday's announcement raises questions about whether Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas will end his months-long hunger strike in protest of Cuba's imprisonment of political activists.

"After receiving official announcement from the church, he may become more flexible with his protest," said Farinas' doctor, Ismeli Iglesias Martinez. "He may start drinking fluids now," he said, instead of relying on an intravenous drip. Farinas is in a hospital in his hometown of Santa Clara.

He has said he began his hunger strike in February, shortly after jailed dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo died in prison at the end of his own prolonged hunger strike.

Zapata's death sparked international condemnation from Europe and Washington and drew a rare statement of regret from President Castro.

CNN's Tom Watkins contributed to this story.