Havana, Cuba - Cuba has promised the Roman Catholic Church it will free 52 political prisoners, slashing the number it holds by nearly a third in what would be the communist-run island's largest release of dissidents since Pope John Paul II visited in 1998.
Five would be released inititially and they would go into exile in Spain, while the others would be freed over the next three or four months, said Havana's archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
The deal struck Wednesday followed a meeting between President Raul Castro and Ortega. Also participating was visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.
"Today we announce with complete satisfaction that the objectives we have worked toward have been met," Moratinos said. A statement from the Spanish Embassy declared, "This opens a new era in Cuba with hope of putting aside differences once and for all on matters of prisoners."
Moratinos then wrapped up his two-plus days here, but did not take any freed prisoners back to Spain with him. He and Ortega said they weren't sure how long it would take for the first five prisoners to be released.
Human rights and opposition activists called the scope of the agreement a surprise.
"We were hoping for a significant release of prisoners, but not this," said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
Ortega said those to be released were all members of a group of 75 leading political opposition activists, community organizers and journalists who report on Cuba in defiance of state controls on media. They were rounded up in a crackdown on dissent in March 2003.
"I'm so excited," said Laura Pollan, whose husband, Hector Maceda, was one of the 75 and has been serving 20 years in prison for treason.
But Pollan was also hesitant, saying she worried the government might not free as many political prisoners as it said it would.
"I don't think they will let everyone go; I think only some will be," she said in her shabby living room in crumbling central Havana. "It won't be the first time that they lie."
She later added, however, "I hope to God I'm wrong and can tell you in September that I was wrong and that the government kept its promise."
Some of the 75 original prisoners had previously been freed for health reasons or after completing their terms, or were allowed into exile in Spain. But 52 have remained behind bars - most serving lengthy prison terms on charges of conspiring with Washington to destabilize Cuba's political system. All are now seemingly poised to go free.
Ortega refused to divulge which five prisoners would be released first, or how they were chosen, saying he couldn't do so because some of their relatives had yet to be notified.
The cardinal also wouldn't say whether those released after the initial five will be deported to Spain or allowed to stay on the island. Asked if subsequent groups of ex-political prisoners would be forced into exile, he said only that leaving Cuba "is a proposal" they will be offered.
Sanchez said forced exile is not the same as unconditional freedom and called Wednesday's agreement "opening the prisons a little, and not to everyone."
"These liberations will not mean a significant improvement in the terrible situation of human rights that exists in Cuba," said Sanchez, whose Havana-based commission is not recognized - but largely tolerated - by the government, which officially brooks no organized opposition.
Still, according to a report released this week by Sanchez's group, the number of Cuban political prisoners has fallen to 167, the lowest total since Fidel Castro took power on New Year's Day 1959.
If the agreement holds, that number would drop by nearly another third.
It would also be the largest group of political prisoners freed since the government released 299 inmates in a general amnesty following the pope's visit 12 years ago. Of those, about 100 were considered held for political reasons.
"This is joyful news for the prisoners and their families, a credit to the Cuban Catholic Church," said Sarah Stephens, head of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, which supports lifting the United States' 48-year-old trade embargo against the island.
She said the government-church deal was "a lesson for U.S. policymakers that engagement - talking to the Cubans with respect - is accomplishing more, right now, than the embargo has accomplished in 50 years."
But U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican and Cuban-American, dismissed the prisoner release as a ploy.
"We must not be fooled," she said in a statement. "Until all political prisoners are liberated, all political parties, labor unions, independent media are legalized and allowed to operate freely ... maximum pressure must be exerted on the Cuban tyranny."
State Department spokeswoman Virginia Staab said that "we would view prisoner releases as a positive development, but we are seeking further details to confirm the facts."
Cuba's Catholic Church has recently become a major political voice on the island, though only with the consent of the Castro government.
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, of which Pollan is a founding member.
The cardinal and another church leader subsequently met with Castro for four hours. Church officials then announced the government would transfer political prisoners to jails closer to their families and give better access to medical care for inmates who need it. That led to 12 transfers last month, and freedom for paraplegic Ariel Sigler.
Those discussions also apparently laid the groundwork for Wednesday's agreement.
The church's increasing role helped to defuse a human rights situation that has been tense since the Feb. 23 death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, an activist who died in prison after a lengthy hunger strike. He became the first Cuban opposition figure to die after refusing food in nearly 40 years.
His death sparked international condemnation.
The agreement Wednesday cast some doubt on the future of Guillermo Farinas, an opposition activist and freelance journalist who is not in prison but has refused food and water since February to protest Zapata Tamayo's death and demand freedom for dozens of political prisoners, all among the 75 jailed in 2003.
He said by phone from a hospital in the central city of Santa Clara, where he has received nutrients intravenously, that he would continue his hunger strike and was prepared to go until he dies. Cuban state media reported that Farinas recently suffered a potentially fatal blood clot in his neck.
Fidel Castro said Cuba held 15,000 political prisoners in 1964, but officials in recent years say none of their prisoners are held for political reasons - all for common crimes or for being paid "mercenaries" of U.S.-funded groups trying to overthrow Cuba's government.