7 Cuban dissidents freed and sent to Spain, first of 52 political prisoners to be freed

By Jorge Sainz, AP
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

7 Cuban dissidents find freedom in Spain

MADRID — Seven former political prisoners from Cuba smiled and gave victory signs Tuesday after they and their families were flown to freedom in Madrid, the first of 52 dissidents the Cuban government has promised to free in a historic policy shift.

In an action once deemed unthinkable, Cuba agreed last week to liberate all those still imprisoned from a 2003 crackdown during which 75 activists were jailed.

Spain, which along with the Roman Catholic Church negotiated the deal, agreed to accept the first group of Cuban exiles. Other dissidents had been freed in Cuba earlier.

Elizardo Sanchez, the head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, told The Associated Press in Havana that four dissidents and their families are due to leave for Spain on a Tuesday evening Iberia airlines flight.

Sanchez said he had spoken to family members of the men — Normando Hernandez, Mijail Barzaga, Omar Rodriguez and Luis Milan — who said they were completing paperwork and expected to leave the country imminently.

Spain’s Europa Press news agency, citing diplomatic sources, listed the same men as next on the list of arrivals, but said Barzaga would likely not leave Cuba until Wednesday.

The releases were greeted with a cautious welcome by the U.S. government but with disdain by Cuban dissidents in exile in Miami, Florida.

Those arriving in Madrid on Tuesday included Lester Gonzalez, Omar Ruiz, Antonio Villarreal, Julio Cesar Galvez, Jose Luis Garcia Paneque, Pablo Pacheco and Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso, according to Spain’s Foreign Ministry.

They came on two flights that left Havana on Monday night along with family members who brought the group to around 35 people.

After a brief news conference, the Cubans and their families —including wives, young children and even some parents— were taken by bus from the airport to a hotel in a working-class area of Madrid.

“It has been a terrible experience,” Pablo Pacheco told Associated Press Television in an exclusive interview outside the hotel.

“There was the hunger strike of (Guillermo) Farinas and the dialogue between the Cuban Catholic Church. It has been some of the tensest moments of my life.”

“Fortunately Farinas has already started to eat and he is getting better,” he said.

Farinas ended 134 days on hunger strike last week after Cuba announced the prisoner release pledge.

“We are now here with our families, and I’m hopeful that all of the prisoners will be released,” added Pacheco

Ruiz complained of the lack of information during the ordeal.

“It was very stressful because the Cuban government gave us very little information on what would happen next,” he told APTN. “We were 72 hours with some of the relatives at home not knowing when we would be released.”

Pacheco and Ruiz were both independent journalists and were sentenced to 20 and 18 years in jail, respectively, according to Amnesty International.

Although certainly better than jail, the hotel is a one-star building located in an industrial zone on Madrid’s southeastern suburbs, surrounded by factories but no shops.

Single rooms costing euro25 ($31) a night have metal lockers instead of wardrobes. Each floor has shared men’s and women’s bathrooms.

It was not known who selected the accommodation or how long the Cubans would stay there.

Spain’s Foreign Ministry said the Cubans would have legal immigrant status with residency and work permits that allow them to live in Spain and travel freely.

The ministry said they would not be treated as refugees or citizens in exile.

In Miami, Florida, Ninoska Perez Castellon, a host on Spanish-language exile broadcast Radio Mambi, said the release of the dissidents was Cuba’s thinly veiled attempt to get sanctions against the communist island lifted.

“The liberation of the political prisoners doesn’t represent anything. They have done it on multiple occasions and the jails have continued filling up. It’s not a liberation, it’s basically sending them to exile,” said Perez, who also is on the board of the Cuban Liberty Council, an exile group that opposes Fidel Castro and the Cuban government.

The U.S. government, meanwhile, welcomed the release.

“We applaud the efforts of the Cuban Catholic Church, Spain and others who have worked toward the release of prisoners of conscience from jail in Cuba,” Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip J. Crowley said in a statement.

“While the United States continues to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, this is a positive development that we hope will represent a step towards increased respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba,” he added.

On arrival, Galvez read a statement in the name of the released.

“We hope that those that continue in Cuba will be able to enjoy the same liberties as we have at this moment,” he said. “Our arrival signals the start of a new period in the future of Cuba.”

Galvez also is a journalist and was serving 15 years in jail.

Another dissident and journalist denied that the group was being used for propaganda purposes by the Cuban government and said he hoped for freedom for everyone in Cuba.

“We don’t consider ourselves manipulated,” said Gonzalez Alfonso who has worked for Reporters Without Borders and was serving 20 years in prison. “We are part of a path.”

“One of the words that is going around Cuba is the word ‘change,’” he added. “For me, for us, the word change begins with freedom, not just the freedom of our companions but the freedom of all Cuban citizens.”

Spain’s Secretary of Iberoamerican Affairs, Juan Pablo de Laiglesia, greeted the seven and noted their release was the result of dialogue between Cuba, the church and Spain. “Spain hopes this dialogue will arrive reach its port safely and produce all its fruits,” he said.

Associated Press writers Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Christine Armario in Miami, Will Weissert and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana, Ken Guggenheim in Washington and APTN cameraman in Spain Hernan Munoz contributed to this report.

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