Vatican foreign minister, Raul Castro meet amid hopes for more prisoner releases, transfers

By Andrea Rodriguez, AP
Sunday, June 20, 2010

Raul Castro suits up for Vatican envoy in Havana

HAVANA — A meeting between the Vatican’s foreign minister and President Raul Castro sparked hopes Sunday that more of the island’s political prisoners may be released or transferred to jails closer to home.

State television showed Castro dressed in a suit instead of his usual olive-green fatigues for the meeting with Archbishop Dominique Mamberti.

A statement read during the official nightly newscast said both men discussed an “international agenda.” It called relations between the Vatican and Cuba “cordial, respectful and continuous,” and applauded the “favorable level of relations between the state and the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba.”

Heading to the airport at the end of his five-day stay, Mamberti told reporters only that “it was a very positive meeting.”

During the visit, Mamberti led discussions among religious and academic leaders, including three visiting U.S. researchers, that encouraged dialogue and reconciliation between Cubans and Cuban-Americans.

Human rights groups have said they hope Mamberti’s trip will spark a new round of prisoner transfers or even the outright release of some dissidents, given the political role the Catholic Church has played recently on the island.

In May, Cuba Cardinal Jaime Ortega negotiated an end to a state 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, a dozen inmates have been moved to jails closer to home, and officials granted freedom on health grounds for prisoner Ariel Sigler in Matanzas province. Sigler must use a wheelchair.

No prisoners were transferred or released during Mamberti’s visit, but human rights leaders are hoping more improvements for dissidents are in the works.

The independent, Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation puts the total number of political prisoners in Cuba at 180, although that list includes some who were convicted of violent acts.

Cuba’s government denies it holds any political prisoners and says those listed by the rights group are common criminals and mercenaries sent by Washington to destabilize the government.

While Mamberti was in Havana, Emilio Aranguren, bishop of the eastern province of Holguin, said island church officials hope Pope Benedict XVI can come to Cuba in 2012, to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.

The last papal visit to the communist-run island was made by John Paul II in 1998.

Mamberti was the first top Vatican official to come since Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the pope’s secretary of state, visited Cuba in February 2008.

Though Cuba never severed ties with the Vatican, relations between the communist government and the church were strained for decades. Tensions eased in the early 1990s, however, when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and allowed believers of all faiths to join the Communist Party.

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