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Pope's Visit Gives Cubans Hope for Freedom PDF Print E-mail


Pope's Visit Gives Cubans Hope for Freedom

by Juan Forero (RNS) © 1998

San Miguel de Padron, Cuba - Maritza Lugo is under the surveillance of government agents. Her husband, Rafael Ibarro Roque, is serving a 20-year sentence on what she says is a trumped-up charge.

But in the wake of Pope John Paul II's history-making five-day tour of Cuba, during which he called for greater religious and civil liberties, Lugo is giddy with optimism as she sits with fellow dissidents in her small home on the outskirts of Havana.

"It's been so hard, but nothing has influenced me to give up - I feel stimulated," said Lugo, 34, a member of the 30th of November group, which calls itself an opposition party in a country where only the Communist Party is legal. "I am optimistic because I have to be. God has given me that optimism."

Buoyed by word the Vatican asked for the release of political prisoners, Lugo and several other Havana-area dissidents said they believed there is a good chance Fidel Castro's regime will issue a blanket amnesty for an undisclosed number of political prisoners. Lugo and her colleagues are hoping her husband, who is being held in a prison in Camaguey, will be among those freed.

The Rev. Fernando de la Vega, a church spokesman, said in a phone interview that a list of 200 prisoners was presented to the government. De la Vega said church officials feel confident at least a few will be released.

"I think there will be a positive response from the government," said Elizardo Sanchez, 53, one of Cuba's foremost dissidents and head of the Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. Sanchez, who served eight years as a prisoner of conscience, said about 500 prisoners are being held.

Lugo said she is already under government restraints. In August, she said, the government put her under a form of house arrest, meaning she cannot leave greater Havana without state permission. This was because she tape-recorded an interview with a political prisoner whose case she had taken up, she said.

Still, members said they feel emboldened about operating, in large part because of Pope John Paul's call for individual rights to be respected.

"When he comes here and tells us all these things, when he says we need to unite and to have liberty, all this gives us a great hope that these things will happen," said Mario Lazaro Torres, 35, one of the members.