3 more Cuban political prisoners arrive in Madrid, 23 now in Spain

MADRID (AP) — Three more Cuban political prisoners arrived in Madrid on Tuesday, bringing to 23 the number who have been released into exile under Cuba's pledge to free dissidents jailed there since 2003.

The three were among six dissidents Cuba's Roman Catholic Church said last week would be freed. The other three are due to arrive in Spain in the coming days.

The trio arrived by plane accompanied by some 15 family members and were taken to a hotel on Madrid's outskirts, where they were helped by Spanish Red Cross workers.

Twenty other dissidents were flown to Spain in separate groups last month.

The men are among 75 dissidents arrested in a March 2003 crackdown and sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges that included treason.

In a landmark deal after talks with the church and Spain, Cuba agreed July 7 to release the remaining 52 prisoners still held.

All released so far have agreed to leave Cuba for Spain, with one then settling in Chile.

The three that arrived in Madrid on Tuesday were Marcelo Manuel Cano Rodriguez, Regis Iglesias Ramirez and Efren Fernandez Fernandez.

They were greeted at the hotel by other former Cuban political prisoners who waved Cuban flags, sang the national anthem and made 'L' signs with their hands for the word "liberty."

"I think we have been freed because the (Cuban) regime needs to clean up its image internationally," said Iglesias Ramirez.

The three said recent public appearances by Fidel Castro showed nothing was likely going to change on the island. A health crisis in 2006 forced Castro to cede power to his younger brother Raul — first temporarily, then permanently.

"I don't think anything will change," said Cano Rodriguez. "We have been obliged to leave and we're not any nearer democracy."

"There is no opening up. The regime is just looking to gain time as the brutal repression dissidents continue to suffer in Cuba shows."

Cuba maintains none of the released is a former prisoner of conscience and insists they are all mercenaries paid by Washington and supported by anti-Castro exiles in Miami whose only goal was to discredit the Cuban government.

Spain has said it will give all the former prisoners work and residency permits.