In a bid to thaw icy relations with Europe after last year's crackdown on dissent, Cuban authorities released well-known writer Raul Rivero (search) and four other dissidents as the EU reviews diplomatic sanctions against the island nation.
Tuesday's release of Rivero in particular was expected to draw the attention of European Union (search) diplomats, who in mid-December are to debate dropping measures adopted after Cuba's March 2003 crackdown.
Those measures — especially the practice of inviting dissidents to national day celebrations at European embassies — enraged Cuban authorities, who cut off formal contacts with ambassadors while still maintaining diplomatic relations.
The 59-year-old Rivero is well-known off the island, and since his arrest 20 months ago he has received numerous international awards, including a United Nations press freedom prize (search).
Rivero said he saw the releases as an attempt by Cuba to warm up to Europe after more than 18 months of sour relations.
"This was a gesture to improve relations, little by little," he said.
Rivero, among 75 dissidents rounded up in last year's crackdown, was released on medical parole early Tuesday after a checkup at a Havana prison hospital for his emphysema and cysts on a kidney.
He had been sentenced to 20 years on charges of working with the U.S. government to undermine Fidel Castro's government — charges American officials and all the activists deny.
Also freed Tuesday was opposition party member Osvaldo Alfonso Valdes, 39, who was among the original 75 and had been sentenced to 18 years.
Both releases came a day after Cuba unexpectedly freed for medical reasons three other dissidents jailed in the crackdown: independent economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, rights activist Marcelo Lopez and Margarito Broche.
In previous months, seven others were also freed, bringing the total of those released thus far to 12, leaving 63 behind bars. Rivero, among a few professionally trained Cuban journalists who call themselves independent reporters, was the best known of the original group.
Castro's government made no public statement about the releases, but analysts said Cuba was eager to avoid the possibility the dissidents would die in jail and wanted to signal flexibility to the European Union and Spain amid warming relations.
The EU is Cuba's most important source of tourism and trade, representing about 80 percent of its imports.
Just last week, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque announced his country had resumed formal contacts with Spain.
The new Socialist government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has criticized Cuba's crackdown but now says the European Union should work together to encourage the Caribbean island to open up.
"I'd like to express not only my satisfaction but also my happiness," Zapatero said Tuesday at a summit with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Spain.
"The releases are good news," Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos added. "The decision of the Spanish government is to continue working with its colleagues in the EU to obtain normalization of diplomatic dialogue by all the member states with Cuba."
Cuba-EU relations grew ugly after the 15-member European bloc announced the sanctions last year. Aside from the crackdown, European countries, most of which have banned the death penalty, were also troubled by Cuba's April 11, 2003, firing-squad executions of three men who tried to hijack a ferry.
Castro likened then-Spanish Premier Jose Maria Aznar to Adolph Hitler and called EU members "the superpower's Trojan horse," saying they couldn't deal independently with the communist state without mirroring U.S. policies.
All of the releases, but that of Rivero in particular, were welcomed by journalist advocacy groups and other international organizations.
"This is a signal of hope for all journalists imprisoned around the world," UNESCO director-general Koichiro Matsuura said in Paris.
The Paris-based Reporters without Borders called his release "great news for democracy advocates everywhere."
"But it must not be forgotten that Cuba's human rights record remains worse than it was before his arrest and that the regime still controls the media and the country with an iron hand," the group added.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Rivero never should have been imprisoned at all. All Cubans should be able "to express themselves and to participate in the political process without fear of this kind of imprisonment."
Rivero expressed optimism the other imprisoned dissidents will eventually go free.
"I don't know exactly what is going on, but I think bit by bit they will be released," he said.
Rivero worked many years for Cuban state media, but broke with Castro's government in 1989.
"I've never wanted to leave Cuba," Rivero said. "I think I'm going to step back and observe, and see if I can do regular journalism, like I was doing. If I can do my work, I have no reason to leave."