June 14, 2010 / 3:48 PM / 9 years ago

Vatican official to visit Cuba amid calls for change

* Visit raises hopes for political prisoner releases

* Will meet with Cuban foreign minister

* Cuban cardinal has called for change in Cuba

By Jeff Franks

HAVANA, June 14 (Reuters) - Vatican Foreign Minister Dominque Mamberti will visit Cuba this week at a time when the Catholic church is flexing its political muscle and calling for change on the communist-led island.

His five-day visit, which starts on Tuesday, follows the release of one of Cuba’s estimated 190 political prisoners and the transfer of 12 others to jails closer to their homes in moves requested by church leaders.

The concessions by the Cuban government have raised hopes that more prisoners will be freed in a gesture to Mamberti, who is the third Vatican official to come to Cuba since Raul Castro succeeded older brother Fidel Castro as president in 2008.

Mamberti is scheduled to meet with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, as well as take part in a church conference where Cuban intellectuals, including several exiles from the United States, will discuss key issues on the island.

His official reason for coming to Cuba is to mark the 75th anniversary of the start of Vatican-Cuba diplomatic relations.

Relations between the Catholic Church and Cuba’s communist government were highly contentious in the years following the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power, but have improved since the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II.

The pope urged Cuba to release its political prisoners, and after he left more than 200 were freed.

The church has moved cautiously over the years, but in recent months Cuban church leader Cardinal Jaime Ortega has become more outspoken.

In a unusually blunt interview with church publication Palabra Nueva (New Word) in April, Ortega said Cubans were fed up with the country’s ongoing economic difficulties and called for the government to “make the necessary changes quickly.”

Ortega, 73, said “the limitations of the type of socialism practiced here” have dragged down the economy, but he also blamed the 48-year-long U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

CHURCH INTERVENTION

Ortega then intervened in May to stop the government’s heavy-handed attempts to end protest marches held weekly by the dissident “Ladies in White” since their husbands and sons were imprisoned in a 2003 crackdown on government opponents.

That was followed by a May 19 meeting with President Castro in which, Ortega said afterwards, they spoke of releasing political prisoners and of broader problems within Cuba.

The session, he said, was a “magnificent beginning” that showed “the church can play the role of mediator and resolve old conflicts.”

The government published a front page photo of a smiling Raul Castro with Ortega and other officials in the Communist Party newspaper Granma, but said only that they discussed a range of issues.

It has been silent on the movements of the prisoners, whom it considers mercenaries for the United States.

President Barack Obama has made the release of political prisoners a condition for improving relations with Havana, but Castro said there would be no prisoners in Cuba if Washington ended its decades-old attempts to promote political change on the island.

So far the prisoner moves have been small and perhaps only an attempt by the government to improve its image after the Feb. 23 death of jailed dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo from an 85-day hunger strike, Cuba experts said.

Zapata’s death drew international condemnation of human rights on the island and prompted another hunger strike by dissident Guillermo Farinas that is still ongoing.

The decision to move prisoners “shows a willingness to negotiate on the part of the government that did not exist previously,” said Paul Wander at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “Still, the government’s decision to acquiesce to Cardinal Ortega’s request probably has more to do with the death of Zapata than anything else.”

The release on Saturday of political prisoner Ariel Sigler Amaya, 46, may have been a mixed blessing for Cuba.

He emerged from seven years in prison crippled and emaciated, not the poster boy Cuba might have hoped for, to back up its contention that the prisoners are well-treated.

Just last week, the United Nations special investigator on torture, Manfred Nowak, accused Cuba of blocking him from making a fact-finding mission to the island’s prisons.

Cuba denied the accusation, but said the Austrian lawyer’s investigation was not needed.

“Few countries can boast of the results achieved in Cuba in the treatment of people in prison and their full reinsertion into society,” it said in a statement. (Reporting by Jeff Franks, editing by Anthony Boadle)

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