Cuban President Raul Castro has unveiled plans to pardon 3,000 prisoners for “humanitarian reasons,” a group amnesty of unprecedented size, and “gradually” reform onerous laws restricting foreign travel.
The pardons include 86 foreign nationals from 25 countries and will take place “in the coming days,” Castro said in a closing address to the National Assembly of People’s Power on Friday.
However, US contractor Alan Gross, jailed in Cuba for espionage, will not be among those released, top foreign ministry official Josefina Vidal said.
Gross — a US Department of State contractor arrested in December 2009 for delivering laptops and communications gear to Cuba’s small Jewish community — “will not be on the list” of foreigners to be pardoned, the official said.
Castro said factors that played into the pardon decision included requests from the Catholic Church and various Protestant churches, and the visit of Pope Benedict XVI next year.
The pardon is the largest ever under the regime, much larger that the 299 prisoners released ahead of the visit of the late pope John Paul II in January 1998.
Cubans were intensely and emotionally keen to hear about migration reform, which Castro — the former defense chief who took over from his brother, revolutionary icon Fidel Castro, in July 2006 — has promised, but not yet delivered.
“I reaffirm my unswerving will to gradually introduce the changes required in this complicated area,” Raul Castro said.
Many people “consider a new migratory policy an urgent issue, forgetting the exceptional circumstances that Cuba is going through,” he said.
He referred to the US trade embargo on the island and Washington’s alleged “subversive” policy, “always on the lookout for any opportunity to reach its known purposes.”
Raul Castro said the administration of US President Barack Obama in Washington “lacked political will to improve relations with Cuba.”
However, he reiterated Havana’s readiness to move toward normalization of relations with the US “in all areas that can benefit both countries.”
Neither the government nor Cuba’s state-run media have given details of the migration reforms being considered.
Local experts believe Raul Castro intends to end the requirement of exit visas (for Cubans on the island), entrance visas (for Cubans living overseas who return home) and the legal status of “permanent emigrant.”
Cubans can usually only leave the country when they have received a letter of invitation from overseas. Then they have to file a request for an exit visa, just at the start of a maze-like bureaucratic process that costs about US$500.
They also need entry visas from the countries to which they travel.
The price is near unaffordable in Cuba, where doctors and street cleaners alike make about US$20 a month.
The Roman Catholic Church and regime-friendly personalities have joined a chorus of Cubans calling for an end to the rules, including one that penalizes “permanent emigrants” from the only one-party communist regime in the Americas.