HAVANA – The Catholic Church in Cuba is positioning itself as the official mediator with the Castro government on the issue of political prisoners.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega told a press conference this afternoon that he met Wednesday with Raul Castro for more than four hours.
He described the talks as a "magnificent beginning."
He said they spoke about the opposition group Damas de Blanco/Women in White and about political prisoners on the island.
While Ortega admitted that "nothing conclusive" was decided at the meeting, he said that "the issues are being dealt with seriously" and that he expects that the two dozen or so political prisoners said to be ill will be released soon.
He noted though that the church is petitioning for the freedom of all Cuban political prisoners, not just the ones in poor health.
Ortega called the dialogue with Castro "very positive." He said that it wasn't a discussion of a list of church requests but that they discussed broader social and economic problems on the island.
"The meeting proved that the church can play the role of mediator and resolve old conflicts," said Ortega.
At the end of Wednesday night's encounter, Ortega said, Raul Castro told him he wanted to continue the meetings. Ortega said he accepted that offer.
Earlier Thursday, the head of the Cuban Conference of Bishops, Santiago Bishop Dionisio Garcia, who attended Wednesday's meeting, voiced confidence that the Castro government would begin releasing political prisoners.
"I believe it will be a process that begins with small steps ... Good intentions (on the part of Raul Castro) are there ... to resolve the situation." Garcia said that the church's concern for the island's political prisoners heightened after jailed opposition figure Orlando Zapata died Feb. 23 in the 85th day of a hunger strike.
If Castro does release political prisoners, that will be the Cuban Catholic Church's second recent victory. Earlier this month, Ortega intervened and defused tensions between the Damas de Blanco/Women in White and Cuban state security.
For the past seven years, the women had marched every week to demand that their relatives be released from prison. In March, state security agents began using force against the women to prevent protests, which increased international condemnation of the island's human rights record. Ortega brokered a deal that allowed the women to continue protesting without police interference or harassment.
All day today, the Cuban state-run media has played up the Castro-Ortega meeting -- making it the top news story of the day. That's surprised Cuba watchers, because Ortega last month issued statements sharply critical of the country's economic policies and human rights record. After those remarks, published in a local Catholic magazine, no one would have guessed that Castro would sit down with him.