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Pope’s Visit To Cuba Bears Fruit Country To Release At Least 200 Prisoners; U.S. Citizens Answer Call To Help Needy Nation

Cuba will free at least 200 prisoners, both dissidents and common criminals, in a massive show of indulgence prompted by Pope John Paul II’s pleas for clemency during his visit last month, officials said Thursday.

The number and categories of prisoners to be freed remain unclear, but it appears that the release could be the largest since the late 1970s. Human-rights groups say Cuba holds at least 500 political prisoners.

The releases come at a time when U.S. citizens have responded to the pope’s Jan. 21 call for “the world to open to Cuba.”

Days after the pope left Cuba, a Florida businessman asked Catholic Church leaders how best to send regular food shipments to the island.

In Chicago, a clothing manufacturer donated 10,000 yards of fabric after watching television reports about the papal visit.

In Boston, Catholic pilgrims returning from the papal mass have launched plans to adopt sister parishes in Havana.

During the pope’s sojourn, hundreds of exiles returned home for the first time in decades, many with gifts for needy relatives.

Now, two major U.S. aid groups say they have received more inquiries and donations as a result of the papal visit.

Catholic Relief Services, the Church’s largest charity agency, plans to send $5 million in food and medicine to Cuba in 1998, $1 million more than last year, spokesman Chris Gilson said.

“Since the papal visit more people have been calling to see how they can help or get involved,” said Gilson, who is based in Baltimore.

A group that helps Jews around the world also expects to increase aid for Cuba. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee expects to send $400,000 in medicine and goods to Cuba in 1998, about $100,000 more than last year, committee spokeswoman Marcia Mintz said.

It wasn’t exactly the pope who sparked those gifts, Mintz said. It was the prominent media coverage of Jews during John Paul’s trip.

“Every time CNN showed a synagogue in Havana, I got a call from someone asking ‘How can I help?”’ said Mintz, who works in New York.

Some of the givers are Cuban Americans inspired by the pope’s encouragement of aid to the island. A few are hard-liners who support the U.S. trade embargo, but want to help the people of Cuba.

“The problem is that in the past there never was any organization that could channel aid directly to the people,” said Carlos Saladrigas, president of the Miami-based Vincom Group, a human resources company.

“Now the church has been tremendously strengthened, and we should be emboldened and willing to give this a significant try,” said Saladrigas, who supports U.S. sanctions, but is willing to consider “other options.”

As with the outpouring of aid from U.S. citizens, Cuba’s announcement about the release of prisoners was prompted by the pope’s January visit.

On Thursday, Cuban Foreign Ministry spokesman Alejandro Gonzalez told a news briefing in Havana that Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano had presented the Cuban government with a list of 300 “prisoners of conscience” whom the pope wished released.

But among those names were 106 people who had already been released from prison after completing their sentences, Gonzalez said.

“Taking into account Cardinal Sodano’s request, independently of whether the prisoners were jailed for political or common crimes, it has been decided to free more than 200 prisoners,” Gonzalez added.

“Several other tens of people will also be freed soon, through the process of clemency grants, which is within the context of Cuban law,” Gonzalez said, reading from a prepared text. He said the clemency grants were “justified from a humanitarian view, for reasons of age, health or other similar circumstances” and included both criminal and political cases.

Gonzalez’s statement was an unusual acknowledgment by the Cuban government that there are political prisoners on the island. Usually, officials argue that dissidents are jailed not for their politics but because their actions violate Cuban laws.

The Vatican’s statement said it had been “informed that the Cuban government has freed a certain number of prisoners as an act of clemency and goodwill to mark the visit of Pope John Paul to Cuba.”

The prisoners released were in “the tens,” it added, and “had been identified some months before by relatives and international human-rights organizations.”

“The (Vatican) secretary of state is pleased by this significant development, which represents a concrete prospect of hope for the future of that noble nation,” said the Vatican’s equivalent of a foreign ministry.