HAVANA – A leading rights activist says most of Cuba's 200 or more political prisoners would rather serve out long terms on the island than be part of an exchange for five communist agents imprisoned in the U.S., as Cuban President Raul Castro has suggested.
President Barack Obama has said Cuba should make the next move as both leaders try to thaw relations — and that releasing political prisoners would be a significant step.
Castro responded in part by suggesting a prisoner swap — sending all of Cuba's political prisoners, and their families, to the United States in exchange for the five convicted Cuban spies.
The prisoners themselves? They want nothing of such a deal, Havana's leading dissident said Monday.
"It's nearly unanimous among the prisoners that they not be exchanged for military men arrested red-handed in espionage activities in the United States," said Elizardo Sanchez of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation. "They would rather stay in prison."
Sanchez, the most veteran of the island's rights activists, talks to numerous political prisoners and their relatives by phone each day, and updates detailed lists of inmates that he releases every six months. His reports are a key source of information for international groups monitoring Cuba's human rights situation.
Castro's government has unilaterally released "prisoners of conscience" before without suffering any political consequences inside Cuba. In February, four political prisoners were set free and immediately exiled to Spain, following human rights talks in Madrid. It was at least the fifth known release of a group of political prisoners by Cuba since the mid-1980s that followed an international appeal or negotiations.
The U.S. has swapped prisoners before with other countries — notably in the case of KGB spy Rudolph Ivanovich Abel, traded to the Soviets in 1962 for imprisoned U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.