Cuba has released five more people who were unjustly imprisoned over a year ago in a massive crackdown on dissent. Most are ill. Economics writer and independent trade union leader Oscar Espinosa Chepe has a liver ailment. Raul Rivero suffers from emphysema and kidney cysts. Marcelo Lopez has a neurological disorder. Margarito Broche suffered a heart attack in prison. In all, twelve of the seventy-five Cubans arrested in the crackdown have been freed, all for health reasons.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher commented on the releases:
"It's important to remember that pressure from democratic nations has helped contribute to their release, and to remember that these Cubans are brave people who were jailed solely for exercising their human rights. We really don't give any credit to the Cuban government for releasing them, since they never should have been jailed to begin with. And we hope that they can return to their work to build a truly just and open Cuban society."
Elizardo Sanchez heads the unofficial Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. He says the Communist government of Fidel Castro is freeing the most seriously ill among the jailed dissidents to avoid responsibility if one of them dies. "The government is not opening its iron fist," he said. "It is only opening its hand to release some prisoners."
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called the March 2003 roundup of human rights advocates and journalists Cuba's "most significant act of political repression in decades." Many of those jailed were involved in the Varela Project, a petition drive aimed at getting Cuba's national assembly to let Cubans vote on whether they want basic rights such as freedom of speech, press, and assembly, and free, competitive elections. The Castro government has long denied basic human rights to the Cuban people. The crackdown on dissent, says Secretary of State Powell, was "calculated to cast a pall on the development of an independent civil society in Cuba." But, he said, "this has not stopped determined Cubans from casting aside their fears and following the example of these valiant democracy activists."