Cuba dissidents still waiting for promised changes
By PAUL HAVEN
Associated Press Writer
HAVANA -- Dissidents and relatives of Cuban political prisoners said
Monday that they've seen no improvement in conditions for inmates
despite an apparent government agreement to improve life behind bars for
the island's 200 political prisoners.
The Roman Catholic Church said the government agreed to move many of
those considered "prisoners of conscience" by international human rights
groups to prisons closer to their homes, and some ailing inmates are to
be sent to hospitals for long-demanded treatment.
But interviews by The Associated Press with six dissidents, relatives
and human rights leaders show disappointment at the early results of the
reported breakthrough - which was to have gotten under way last week.
"There has been no movement whatsoever," said Elizardo Sanchez, head of
the independent Havana-based Commission on Human Rights and National
Reconciliation, which monitors treatment of dissidents and would be
among the first to hear of prison transfers.
Anxious family members said they still held out hope the government
would keep its word, but some were clearly beginning to lose patience.
"I spoke to (my husband) on Wednesday," said Lidia Lima, the wife of one
of Cuba's oldest political prisoners, 68-year-old Arnaldo Ramos. "He was
so hopeful, but now we're not so sure."
What seemed to be a landmark accord on the political prisoners came amid
growing signs that Cuba was ready to soften its stance on the
opposition, and that the church would play a leading role.
In May, authorities reversed a ban on weekly protest marches by the
Ladies in White - mostly relatives of imprisoned dissidents - after
Cardinal Jaime Ortega intervened.
Then, on May 19, Cuban President Raul Castro held a four-hour meeting
with the cardinal and another church leader. Ortega a said he saw the
encounter as a "magnificent start."
Three days later, Havana auxiliary bishop Juan de Dios Hernandez brought
news of the prisoner transfer agreement to hunger-striking dissident
Guillermo Farinas, who told AP that the transfers would start May 24.
Orlando Marquez, a Havana church official, told AP on May 23 that the
transfers would begin over the course of last week.
The church had no comment Monday on the reason for the lack of movement,
but a church official said privately the government had promised only to
start the paperwork last week and gave no specific date on when prison
transfers or releases might begin. The official spoke on condition of
anonymity due to the sensitivity surrounding the agreement.
Ramos, a Havana native, is serving an 18-year prison term at the
high-security Sancti Spiritus jail in eastern Cuba, 220 miles (350
kilometers) from his home. He is one of 75 people locked up in a
sweeping 2003 crackdown on activists, community organizers and human
rights leaders. More than 50 are still in jail.
Laura Pollan, the leader of the Damas de Blanco - or Ladies in White -
told the AP that at least 17 prisoners of the original 75 are being held
at jails outside their home province, 11 were older than 60, and 26
suffered serious health problems.
She said she was particularly concerned for four prisoners who met all
of those criteria: Ramos, Adolfo Fernandez, Jesus Mustafa and Omar Ruiz.
She said she still had faith change was coming.
"I believe in God. Hope is the last thing one loses," she said. "I am an
Pollan's husband, Hector Maseda, 65, was among those arrested in 2003
and is serving a 20-year prison sentence in the central province of
Villa Clara. He could be a candidate for improved conditions or transfer
closer to Pollan in Havana, but she said his situation hasn't changed.
The government had no immediate comment on Monday, nor has it commented
publicly on the agreement reached with the church. Cuban officials
describe the dissidents as traitors paid by Washington to undermine its
communist system. They say their human rights record is among the best
in the world.
One dissident's wife, Bertha Soler, told the AP her nerves have been
frayed by all the waiting.
"It's already been a week," she said. "I am getting a little desperate."
Her husband Angel Moya is serving a 20-year prison sentence.
Sanchez, the human rights leader, said he was still hopeful the prisoner
releases would take place, because the government had clearly made a
political decision to make the concessions.
"We must wait without stress," he said. "Sooner or later it will happen,
but this is a government that will take all the time it likes."