Cuban President Raul Castro has agreed to free 52 political prisoners who have been behind bars since a 2003 crackdown on dissent. It is a major concession to international and domestic pressure that could led to reduced tensions with the United States and the European Union.
The announcement was made by the Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday following a meeting between Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Castro and visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos. It is the largest release of political prisoners since Pope John Paul II visited the Communist-ruled Caribbean island in 1998.
Five of the prisoners will be released immediately and the remainder will be freed over the next few months. The five prisoners were expected to leave for Spain accompanied by their families, while the others will apparently be given the option to leave the country if they wish.
The prisoners were among 75 arrested in 2003, charged with working with the United States to subvert the constitutional order and sentenced to long jail terms. Twenty three others have already been released for health reasons.
The U.S. and the European Union have conditioned improved relations with Cuba on movement on the political prisoner issue.
Before departing for Spain, Moritinos said the release would "open a new era in Cuba … with the desire to definitively resolve the question of political prisoners."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Moritinos to congratulate him for his efforts, sources at the Spanish Foreign Ministry told local media. Speaking in Washington, she said, "We think that it's a positive sign. It's something that is overdue but nevertheless very welcome."
Laura Pollan, leader of female relatives of the prisoners -- known as the Ladies in White -- said she was surprised and happy about the news, and expected the release of her husband Hector Maceda.
"I think we are at the door of real change, a substantial change and I hope not just a change of releasing some prisoners and putting away others," she said.
Cardinal Ortega jumped into the political fray in April after the death of dissident hunger striker Orlando Zapata. Harassment of the prisoners female relatives provoked increased international scrutiny and condemnation of human rights abuses.
Zapata's death prompted another dissident, Guillermo Farinas, to launch a hunger strike that, after 134 days of intravenous feeding, reportedly brought him near death in a hospital in the central city of Santa Clara.
Farinas has been demanding the release of 25 ailing political prisoners, who are believed to be included in the group to be freed. Thursday, he began accepting water and was reportedly ready to end his hunger strike.
Ortega said the social and economic situation facing the country was "the most difficult we have experienced in the 21st century" and he urged the government to move more quickly with "the national consensus" on the need for reforms.
Castro first met with Ortega and Bishop Dionisio Garcia of Santiago de Cuba, the head of the Conference of Bishops, in May, in what the Cardinal said was a "magnificent beginning of an ongoing process ... a recognition of the role of the church as an interlocutor, of overcoming the old grievances that may have existed, so that we can walk along a new path".