Raul Castro's talks with Catholic Church marks a political shift in Cuba

Maimi, USA - MIAMI -Raul Castro's talks with the Catholic Church on political prisoners have sparked hopes, skepticism and assertions that he's taking a risk by recognizing the church as a mediator in Cuban affairs.

The meetings with Cardinal Jaime Ortega are the first time in memory the Communist government has negotiated with a national and independent organization like the Cuban church, in an island where authorities at least try to control virtually all activity.

They also represent Castro's most important political shift since he succeeded his ailing brother Fidel two years ago, a change that has given added weight to a church tightly limited throughout most of the last five decades.

While the local church has long decried the country's many problems, "what is new is the government's readiness to publicly recognize the Cuban Catholic Church as a middleman for resolving key issues," Havana dissident Oscar Espinosa Chepe wrote in a column Monday.

Fidel Castro freed 3,600 political prisoners after 1978 negotiations with exiles, and about 300 dissidents and common criminals after Pope John Paul II's 1998 visit to Cuba. He also released a few to visitors like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

Now his brother's meetings with Ortega have raised hopes for an improvement in Cuba's human rights record, as well as complaints the cardinal is being manipulated by Raul Castro to give a propaganda boost to what may be meager changes on the political prisoners.

Castro has promised to move some political prisoners in poor health to hospitals, move other jailed dissidents to institutions closer to their homes and eventually released some of Cuba's estimated 190 prisoners of conscience.

Some analysts are cautioning, however, that Castro is taking a risk that his talks with Ortega may embolden dissidents, average Cubans and even government officials critical of his slow pace in adopting desperately needed economic reforms.

"The government is tacitly recognizing with this gesture that it will definitively accept the risks of thinking differently," said Julio Hernandez, a Miami supporter of dissident Oswaldo Pay's Christian Liberation Movement.

"This means the church has won a big space of trust," added Hernandez. "The opposition and the dissidence now must be sensitive to that and adopt a path for peaceful proposals."

"When the authorities recognize any sort of independent source of power, they are admitting a weakness," said a Havana author who asked to remain anonymous to avoid possible retaliations for his comment.

Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute think tank in suburban Washington, noted that Havana in the past has gone over the heads of the local church officials and negotiated directly with the Vatican on issues such as permissions to open new seminaries.

The Castro-Ortega talks, he added, "mark the government accepting the church as a part of civil society ... I don't particularly see any risk (for Castro) in it, but it is opening up a new space for political discussions on topics that were not open before."

Retired CIA Cuba expert Brian Latell noted that the church-state talks come at a time when Castro faces a crushing economic crisis as well as a wave of international condemnations of his human rights record.

They include the Feb. 22 death of jailed dissident Orlando Zapata after a lengthy hunger strike and a crackdown on the Ladies in White protesters earlier this year.

"This represents a reflection of how much pressure they (the government) are feeling for the human rights, and pressures from a whole array of domestic problems," Latell said. "They're hoping the cardinal can help to alleviate some of those pressures."

But he added that he did not foresee any risk to Raul Castro because Ortega was unlikely to push too hard during the conversations with Castro. "I don't see him turning the screws hard on Raul."

Espinosa Chepe, one of the 75 dissidents jailed in the 2003 roundup known as the Black Spring but freed for health reasons, said Castro's readiness to ease conditions for political prisoners could help improve Cuba's relations with Washington and the European Union.

"It's clear that President (Barack) Obama favors better relations with Cuba ... but he has been blocked by the lack of reciprocity," he wrote. If some political prisoners are freed, "that could make it easier for the administration to take additional steps."

In Washington, a State Department spokesperson said, "We've seen the optimist prognosis (for the political prisoners) and are looking forward to seeing what concrete steps the Cuban government will take. We have urged the Cuban government before to release its prisoners of conscience."

The Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, which favors easing U.S. sanctions on Cuba, issued a statement saying that the Castro-Ortega talks were "a real lesson for U.S. policy makers. Talking to the Cubans, not using sanctions ... is the most effective way to achieve progress."

Oscar Peua, director of the Miami-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights, complained in a blog post that Raul Castro had "jumped over the heads of the dissidence" in order to negotiate with Ortega.

"But since the key issue is the release of all political prisoners, we do not hold back in being grateful" Peua added, even though it does not "resolve the sad reality of misery and lack of freedom that Cubans suffer for more than half a century."