Vatican foreign minister visits Cuba as opposition hopes for more prisoner releases, transfers

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Vatican foreign minister in Cuba amid high hopes

HAVANA — The Vatican’s foreign minister came to Cuba late Tuesday to discuss the island’s economic plight, and rights activists hope his visit may get more political prisoners freed or at least moved to jails closer to home.

Archbishop Dominique Mamberti was greeted at the airport by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and Caridad Diego, head of religious affairs for the Cuban Communist Party, as well as Havana Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

Mamberti will mark Catholic Social Week by leading discussions among religious leaders on reconciliation among Cubans, specifically the divide between islanders and those who left are in the Cuban-American exile community in the U.S.

Mamberti’s visit comes after negotiations between President Raul Castro’s government and Ortega’s office prompted authorities to free one political prisoner for health reasons and transfer 12 more to facilities closer to their homes.

Mamberti is the first top Vatican official to visit Cuba since a 2008 trip by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of state to Pope Benedict XVI, and opposition leaders hope the communist government may make more concessions while he is here.

The Roman Catholic Church has suddenly become a major political voice, apparently with the consent of Cuba’s leaders. In May, Ortega negotiated an end to a ban on marches by a small group of wives and mothers of political prisoners known as the Ladies in White.

The cardinal and another church leader subsequently met with Castro for hours. Church officials then announced the government would allow transfers for prisoners held far from their families and give better access to medical care for inmates who need it — so far prompting the dozen transfers and freedom for prisoner Ariel Sigler in Matanzas province.

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