HAVANA – HAVANA (AP) — Roman Catholic officials said Friday they had a humanitarian obligation to broker a landmark deal in which Cuba promised to free 52 political prisoners — answering island opposition activists who complained of being left out of negotiations.
But "remaining inactive was not a valid option," it said in a statement.
Those sentiments came in response to a letter to Pope Benedict XVI from 165 top Cuban political activists, community organizers and dissidents that has circulated in Spain but not on the island. The letter said that while the dissident community supports the result of the July 7 deal between the Church and Cuba, both sides ignored the needs of the country's political opposition in reaching it.
The government has already freed 26 prisoners and sent them with their relatives to Spain to live in exile. The rest are expected to be released in the coming weeks, emptying Cuban jails of the last of the political prisoners imprisoned after a sweeping crackdown on organized dissent in 2003.
It is not clear whether those still waiting to be freed will be allowed to stay in Cuba or go into exile.
In their letter to the pope, the dissidents wrote, "a correct mediation on this topic should have included hearing the complaints of both sides and reconciling them."
"We do not agree with the position taken by the Cuban religious hierarchy on behalf of political prisoners," it added. "It is lamentable and even embarrassing."
It also denounced a new wave of arrests of dissidents, most of whom have been held for a few hours and then released.
The letter said pressure on those who publicly oppose Cuba's communist system has intensified this month after Castro said in a televised address that, despite his government's agreement with the Church, "there will not be impunity for the enemies of the homeland."
"Repression, hostility and arbitrary detentions have increased in recent days, after the threats of President Raul Castro on Aug. 1," the letter said. "It raises the question: 'Are they emptying the prisons just to fill them again?'"
Some such incidents have involved Reina Luisa Tamayo, whose son Orlando died Feb. 23 after staging a monthslong hunger strike behind bars. Tamayo and a small group of relatives have taken to the streets in his memory in her hometown of Banes every Sunday since, but pro-government mobs have broken up their march each of the last two weeks — sparking outcry from Amnesty International and other international groups.
Tamayo was not among the dissidents to sign the letter to the pope, but two of her sons did.
In its statement Friday, the Church said it "will not divert its attention from that which motivated it to become part of this process: the humanitarian complaints of the families who have suffered from the incarceration of one or more of their members."