Raul Castro offers to swap dissidents for 'Cuban 5' in US
BRASILIA - Cuban President Raul Castro made an unprecedented offer yesterday to exchange political dissidents jailed in his country for five Cubans imprisoned in the US for espionage.
Castro, on his first official visit to Brazil, also reiterated Cuba's willingness to discuss the United States' 46-year-old economic embargo with President-elect Barack Obama.
Answering a reporter's question about political prisoners in Cuba, Castro said he would consider releasing some as a gesture to opening talks with the new administration.
But he said the United States would need to reciprocate.
"Let's make a gesture for a gesture," said Castro, who took over in February from his ailing brother, Fidel. "We will send those prisoners you talk about (to the United States) with their families. But give us back our five heroes."
The Cuban president referred to the so-called "Cuban Five," who were convicted in 2001 on espionage charges and are lionized in Cuba as heroes. Cuban exile groups in the United States say they were justly punished.
President Bush has taken a hard line against Cuba and would not consider such a trade. State Department spokeswoman Heidi Bronke said the jailed dissidents should be released immediately without conditions.
"The issue of political prisoners in Cuba who are being held against their will for peaceful protests is independent of the case of the five Cubans that have been tried and convicted," she said.
Obama has never discussed releasing prisoners and has said he will keep the embargo as leverage until Cuba shows "significant steps toward democracy."
But he has shown more openness, promising during the campaign that immediately after taking office on Jan. 20, he will lift all restrictions on family travel and cash remittances to Cuba.
Castro has never publicly mentioned the possibility of releasing any political prisoners. But it seemed unlikely that Cuba would free all 219 currently listed by the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconcilation, which also counts people convicted of violent acts.