Cuba announces massive prisoner release ahead of pope’s visit

Pope Francis waves after his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015.
Pope Francis waves after his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. AP

Cuba announced Friday that it would free 3,522 people from its jails — one of the largest prisoner releases since the 1959 revolution — as a gesture of goodwill to Pope Francis, who arrives on the island next week for a four-day visit.

The announcement, which appeared in state media Friday morning, said that aside from a few humanitarian cases, the release would not include prisoners convicted of violent crimes such as murder, rape and sexual abuse of children, or those jailed for drug trafficking, illegal slaughter of cattle or crimes against the security of the state. The latter would seem to rule out many political prisoners who are often charged with security offenses.

“What this regime does is to deceive,” Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White dissident group told El Nuevo Herald. “It practically cleans the Cuban jails of many common prisoners, who also deserve to be in the streets, but it doesn’t release the political prisoners because it says there are no political prisoners.”

There also were prisoner releases on the eve of Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba and a prisoner amnesty a few months before Pope Benedict XVI’s 2012 trip. Nearly 3,000 prisoners were released prior to Benedict’s visit, and a much smaller number before John Paul visited.

The announcement by Cuba’s Council of State said the release would go into effect within 72 hours.

When selecting the prisoners for pardon, Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, said consideration was given to those more than 60 years of age and younger than 20 years if they had no prior convictions, women, the chronically ill, and those nearing the end of their terms or on work release programs.

There are also some foreigners in the group, and the Foreign Ministry was working with foreign diplomats to arrange their repatriations. Granma reported that the government also was working with various government entities to reintegrate the prisoners into society and get medical care for those in need.

Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega told CNN that the release was a “humanitarian gesture; we have received many letters.”

The Catholic Church, he said, gathered up all the requests for pardons it had received from prisoners’ families and submitted them to the Cuban government for consideration for amnesty before the papal visit.

CubaNow, a Washington advocacy group that is working to end the embargo, said that “by any measure, the Cuban government’s decision to release over 3,500 non-violent offenders ahead of Pope Francis’ visit represents progress. ... It is safe to say that this would not be happening if not for the Holy Father’s role in changing U.S.-Cuba relations, and the progress that has been made since.”

But South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wasn’t impressed by the gesture, calling it part of Cuba’s “catch and release” program. “We should remember many of these prisoners should not have been in jail in the first place,” she said in a statement.

Ros-Lehtinen noted that those found guilty of “crimes against state security” were not included. “We should recognize this release for the farce that it is and instead work to support Cuban pro-democracy leaders instead of congratulating an empty gesture by a tyrannical regime,” she said.

CubaNow also said it was disappointed “by reports suggesting that political prisoners may not be among those pardoned” before Francis’ visit. It urged the government to take those cases into consideration as well as “a gesture of goodwill.”

Despite the prisoner release before Benedict’s visit, the Capitol Hill Cubans blog said, “The cells were quickly refilled, including during Pope Benedict XVI’s trip itself, where a crackdown on democracy activists resulted in some spending up to three years in prison, without trial or charges.”

The Cuban government has continued to arrest dissidents in the days and weeks leading up to Francis’ visit, but most are short-term detentions and activists are often freed the same day they are detained. Dissident leaders also have complained that some of their numbers have been beaten during the detentions.

The biggest Cuban prisoner release actually came during the presidency of Jimmy Carter when Cuba agreed to free 3,600 political prisoners as part of an effort by both governments to improve relations. A few hundred more than that were actually released during the Carter opening toward Cuba, but the rapprochement effort ultimately fizzled over an impasse on Cuba’s intervention in Africa and the beginning of the Mariel boatlift in 1980.

The prisoner release was announced on the same day a U.S. delegation was in Havana for the first meeting of a bilateral commission on normalization issues. The United States and Cuba renewed diplomatic relations on July 20 after a gap of more than 54 years.

Granma published the news of the pardons on its front page in a summary of actions taken by the Council of State during a Tuesday meeting, but the story itself was played on Page 3. In the summary, the prisoner release was mentioned after news that the Grand Theater of Havana would be renamed the Grand Theater of Havana Alicia Alonso in honor of the work of the famed Cuban ballerina and choreographer and that three Cuban generals would be given the title of “heroes of the Republic of Cuba.”

In comments on Granma’s website, readers were generally supportive of the decision. A commenter named Ada said the release was “good news to discuss on a day such as this, Sept. 11.”

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