At Risk of Permanent Disability

Saturday, May 29, 2010
This week, Cuban pro-democracy leader, Juan Carlos González Leiva, warned that as many as 10 political prisoners are at risk of permanently disability due to the lack of medical attention and abuses suffered in the Castro regime's prisons.

Please note that these dissidents were in perfect health at the time of their incarceration.

They are:

Ariel Sigler Amaya, who has been left paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.

Antonio Villareal Acosta, who suffers from psychiatric disorders caused by his confinement.

Normando Hernández González, who suffers from severe intestinal problems.

Pedro Argüelles Morán, who is practically blind.

Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, who suffers various cardiac, respiratory, intestinal and other ailments.

Dr. José Luís García Paneque, who suffers from spinal, kidney and respiratory ailments.

Librado Linares García, who is partially blind and suffers from digestive and respiratory problems.

Blas Giraldo Reyes Rodríguez, who suffers from kidney, circulatory, prostate and intestinal ailments.

Próspero Gainza Agüero, who is nearly blind and suffers from intestinal and kidney problems.

Fabio Prieto Llorente, who is hypertensive and suffers from allergies and digestive and respiratory problems.

Courtesy of Uncommon Sense.

Point of the Week

By New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman:

As Ugly As It Gets

I confess that when I first saw the May 17 picture of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, joining his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with raised arms -- after their signing of a putative deal to defuse the crisis over Iran's nuclear weapons program -- all I could think of was: Is there anything uglier than watching democrats sell out other democrats to a Holocaust-denying, vote-stealing Iranian thug just to tweak the U.S. and show that they, too, can play at the big power table?

No, that's about as ugly as it gets [...]

Turkey and Brazil are both nascent democracies that have overcome their own histories of military rule. For their leaders to embrace and strengthen an Iranian president who uses his army and police to crush and kill Iranian democrats -- people seeking the same freedom of speech and political choice that Turks and Brazilians now enjoy -- is shameful [...]

I'd prefer that Iran never get a bomb. The world would be much safer without more nukes, especially in the Middle East. But if Iran does go nuclear, it makes a huge difference whether a democratic Iran has its finger on the trigger or this current murderous clerical dictatorship. Anyone working to delay that and to foster real democracy in Iran is on the side of the angels. Anyone who enables this tyrannical regime and gives cover for its nuclear mischief will one day have to answer to the Iranian people.

Criticism of "Pedro Pan" Documentary

The Examiner's Blas Padrino pointedly criticizes the bias and inaccuracy of CNBC's documentary, Escape from Havana: An American Story, about the Pedro Pan project, which helped provide refuge to more than 14,000 children that fled Cuba between 1960 and 1962:

The documentary makes a glaring falsification by stating that the Pedro Pan parents sent their children out of Cuba because they were tricked by the CIA. According to [anchor Meredith] Vieira's narrative, the CIA circulated a false document purporting to be a proposed decree about to be enacted by Castro, which would take away parental rights and make children wards of the state. Even if the CIA circulated such a document, that was not the reason for the exodus. The reality was that Castro had already taken steps that threatened parental rights, including the closing of all private schools.

The main motivator of Pedro Pan was the enactment of a decree that made all persons between the ages of 16 and 50 subject to military service and that prohibited all persons subject to military service from leaving the country. Parents were scrambling to send their children out of Cuba before they became subject to that law. Of course, since the parents already were subject to the law, they were prohibited from leaving the country with their children. Under the law, the attempt by anyone of military age to leave the country without authorization constituted desertion, punishable by death. The purpose of Castro's decree was to force a difficult choice on parents who wanted their children to escape the brainwashing and harassment already taking place in the government-run schools. The documentary's failure to mention this detail and, instead blame CIA misinformation, taints the program's credibility.

Vieira also slanted the coverage to show three former Pedro Pan kids who supported an end to the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, but none who supported keeping it in place. Don't expect the bulk of the Pedro Pan kids to have any sympathy for helping out Castro. They suffered considerably on account of his regime.

Similarly, there was no effort to ask any parents of Pedro Pan children about the reasons why they made the decision to send them to the United States. Although Pedro Pan parents still alive are now of advanced age, many eventually followed their children to the U.S. after 1967, when Castro reversed his policy of refusing exit to most adult Cubans and acquiesced in the Freedom Flights program, which brought hundreds of thousands of Cubans to this country. Such interviews would undoubtedly cast doubt on the Vieira-CIA-ruse explanation for the Pedro Pan exodus.

It was also notable that the documentary failed to include perhaps Pedro Pan's best known graduate: former U.S. Senator from Florida Mel Martinez.

Also, the labeling of Pedro Pan as a 'secret' program was inaccurate. Certainly, the Castro regime knew that the children being sent out of the country were not planning to return. Obviously, the reason the children were placed in the 'fishbowl' for hours before departure, within sight of their parents, but forbidden from even waving at each other through the glass – as depicted in the documentary – was aimed at harassing the families. As was the parting shot from the Cuban customs officer as he slammed the exit stamp on the author's passport: "You're leaving without your parents," he growled. "How little they love you."

Finally, the documentary makes no mention of a Cuban heroine: Maria L. "Polita" Grau, niece of former Cuban President Ramón Grau San Martín. Mrs. Grau was the heart and soul of the Pedro Pan effort in Cuba. In 1965, because of Pedro Pan, she was charged with being a CIA agent and sentenced to 30 years in jail. She was released after 14 years of imprisonment and exiled to Miami, where she died in 2000. No account of Pedro Pan is complete without paying homage to Grau's courage and sacrifice.

Obama's National Security Strategy

Friday, May 28, 2010
The White House released its 2010 National Security Strategy entitled:

Advancing Our Interests: Actions in Support of the President's National Security Strategy

There were two sections on Cuba.


Cuba: Fulfilled the President's promise to reach out in support of the Cuban people's desire to freely determine their future, to expand the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people, and to pragmatically engage with Cuban authorities to advance U.S. national interests. Gained hemispheric consensus on resolution highlighting need for Cuba to abide by core democratic and human rights principles as part of any return to participation in the Organization of American States.

Followed by,

Promoting Internet Freedom: The administration has made clear its commitment to global internet freedom, including through the agenda put forward by the Secretary of State on January 21, and established an Internet Freedom Task Force that is working with the private sector on these issues. We have modified our sanctions policy to allow citizens in countries like Iran, Sudan and Cuba to have greater access to relevant technologies.

Lobbying for Repression Profits

Last November, the Washington, D.C.-based "watchdog" group Public Campaign issued a widely publicized report criticizing the political advocacy of the Cuban-American community and its "influence" on U.S. policy towards Cuba.

Yet, today, the AP reported:

Hotel trade group spends $305,000 lobbying in 1Q

The American Hotel & Lodging Association spent $305,000 in the first quarter lobbying federal officials on travel to Cuba, labor and other issues, according to a recent disclosure report.

That's less than the $350,000 the group spent lobbying both in the same period last year and in 2009's fourth quarter.

And last week,

Caterpillar discloses $480,000 in 1Q lobbying

Construction and mining equipment maker Caterpillar Inc. spent $480,000 in the first quarter as it lobbied the U.S. government on issues that included the health care overhaul, financial reform and labor laws.

The Peoria, Ill., company lobbied Congress, the White House, the departments of State, Commerce, and Treasury, and the U.S. Trade Representative.

Caterpillar representatives discussed issues related to health care reform, jobs, financial reform, taxes, tariffs on manufacturing components, defense department appropriations, vehicle technology, clean energy, trade with Cuba, and currency rates.

That's just two entities in the first three months of 2010 alone.

Add to that the expenditures of dozens of other trade associations, farm bureaus and corporations, not to mention the millions of dollars in foundation grants that ideological non-profits receive to lobby for the normalization of relations with the Castro regime, and the Cuban-American community is overwhelmingly stymied in its advocacy.

Apparently though, for Public Campaign, it's perfectly fine to lobby in pursuit of profits from the Castro regime's repression, apartheid tourism industry and slave labor.

However, to condition such profits to the human rights and freedom of the Cuban people is "retrograde."

We'll proudly stick to human rights and freedom.

More Activism (and Repression)

Thursday, May 27, 2010
On Tuesday, representatives of a dozen opposition groups congregated at Havana's Parque Central [Central Park] to honor Cuban pro-democracy leaders, Pedro Luis Boitel and Orlando Zapata Tamayo -- both of whom died from hunger strikes in political prison.

Amongst the participants were representatives of the Partido Pro-Derechos Humanos [Human Rights Party], Movimiento Andréi Sajárov [Andrei Sakharov Movement], Movimiento Pro-Derechos Civiles Rosa Parks [Rosa Parks Civil Rights Movement], Liga Cívica Martiana [José Martí Civic League] and the Presidio Político Pedro Luis Boitel [Pedro Luis Boitel Political Prisoner Movement].

The opposition activists held signs and demanded freedom for Cuba's political prisoners.

According to Cuban independent journalist, Carlos Serpa Maceira, the Castro regime's paramilitary "Rapid Response Brigades" surrounded the activists, assaulted them (Serpa himself was almost strangled) and dragged them to a local police station.

They were subjected to threats and abuses at the police station, and were finally released from the holding cells late in the evening. However, independent journalist Calixto Ramón Martínez Arias is still being held at the station, and the authorities are threatening to "deport" him [from Havana] back to the province of Camagüey in central Cuba.

Courtesy of #OZT.

Time for CAMBIO

Despite the constant fear of repression, the Cuban people are unequivocally demanding CAMBIO ("CHANGE").

From the cities:

To the countryside:

In this last picture, the sign indicates a local CDR ("Committee for the Defense of the Revolution") branch -- the Castro regime's "neighborhood watch" authority.

Powerful images.

This is Not a Game of Risk

Each year, Aon's political risk and trade credit experts, together with Oxford Analytica, analyze the political and economic risk climate in more than 200 countries.

Their findings are illustrated in the annual update of Aon's Political and Economic Risk Map. The map is an invaluable tool for anybody with responsibility for political risk assessment and management.

According to the 2010 Political Risk Map, Cuba is ranked towards the bottom as a high risk country.

As Cubapolidata explains, the rating is based on Cuba's risk of currency in-convertibility and transfer; strikes, riots and civil commotion; war; terrorism; sovereign non-payment; political interference; supply chain interruption; and legal and regulatory risk.

In contrast, Colombia and Panama are ranked towards the top as medium-low risk countries.

So why would House Agriculture Committee Chairman, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, seek to expand commerce with the high-risk Cuban dictatorship, while simultaneously opposing expanding trade with the much lower-risk democratic nations of Colombia and Panama?

Must have an affinity for high risk.

Unfortunately, this is not a game.

No Due Process for Jailed American

According to AP:

Cuba has yet to open a legal case against a U.S. government contractor from Maryland nearly six months after he was arrested as a suspected spy, the head of the island's high court said Wednesday.

Alan P. Gross was detained Dec. 3 at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport and has been held without charge at the capital's high-security Villa Marista prison ever since.

Formal charges cannot be filed in Cuba without a judicial accusation and the opening of a court case, so it appears unlikely charges against Gross are imminent even as he approaches a half-year in custody.

Here's an emotional appeal by his wife for his release:

Release Them All

Wednesday, May 26, 2010
According to Europa Press:

Cuban independent journalist Guillermo Fariñas says he will continue his hunger strike -- already in its third month -- until the regime of Raul Castro releases "all" political prisoners in need of medical care because his protest "is not just to achieve the transfer" of prisoners to other penitentiaries [closer to their homes] but to "achieve the release of all of them."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Despite the week's speculation, as of tonight, no political prisoners have been transferred or released.

Politico Playlist


From Cuba to Liverpool

If you read into the most-played songs on Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart's iPod, you might surmise that this is a man who is always running for office ("I'm a Fool to Want You," "Shelter from the Storm," and 'Twist and Shout" are among his favorites). But what comes through even more in his mix is a love of strong vocals and an eclectic taste for the classics.

Below, Diaz-Balart shares his Top 10 tunes, with commentary, in no particular order:

A Day in the Life (The Beatles): "A masterpiece of a song from a masterpiece album."

Por Si Acaso No Regreso (Celia Cruz): "There will only be one Celia Cruz"

Amazing Grace (The Blind Boys of Alabama): "A Gospel rendition of 'Amazing Grace' to 'House of the Rising Sun' music."

Beside You (Van Morrison): "Comes from the 'Astral Weeks' album, which I believe is one of the best albums of all times."

Twist and Shout (The Beatles): "My four and a half year old son Cristian's favorite song to dance to."

El Cake (Gorki Aguila): "I love his music and admire his courage and love of freedom."

Tabaco y Chanel (Bacilos): "A song that brings back good memories to my wife Tia and me."

Que Bueno Baila Usted (Benny Moré): "A classic. Exemplifies Cuban music."

Shelter from the Storm (Bob Dylan): "I'm a huge Bob Dylan fan. This is just one of the many songs I listen to all the time."

I'm a Fool to Want You (Billie Holiday): "You can always feel her emotions through her music."

From Paris With Love

Is Venezuela a State-Sponsor of Terror?

U.S. Senators Robert Bennett of Utah, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, John Cornyn of Texas, John Ensign of Nevada, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jon Kyl of Arizona, George Lemieux of Florida, John McCain of Arizona, James Risch of Idaho and Roger Wicker of Mississippi strongly believe so.

They make the case in this letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (click on images to enlarge):

Congressional Dear Colleague

Tuesday, May 25, 2010
The following "Dear Colleague" memo was distributed to Members of the U.S. House of Representatives:

Child Prostitution in Castro's Resorts

Dear Colleague,

I would like to bring to your attention the following excerpts from an article appearing in Spain's El Mundo newspaper earlier this month.

Though disturbing, this piece provides a clear window into the ongoing practice of child prostitution in Cuba's tourism industry.

The madame of luxury and her catalog of Cuban women and kids.

She looks like a gentle grandmother…

…Her business is prostitution.

She always carries a black leather folder, and is looking for partying foreigners or Cubans with money that have had too much to drink and which she believes are looking for a hot night. She approaches them politely to offer her services…

…she pulls an album of glossy photos, that no doubt was prepared by a professional photographer, with dozens of boys and girls, depending on the sexual preferences, appear short of clothes and in provocative poses…

…"They are very young, my son, but if you are looking for some 12 or 13 years old, you will have to pay more," says [the madame] in a maternal soft voice.

The madame starts providing prices in a soft voice. "…What I have here is first class. These are shy girls, who are not full-time prostitutes, some are students," she explains while detailing the quality of her "merchandise."

Clients are taken to discreet brothels where they are offered expensive drinks and hors d'oeuvres. The chosen girl is already there
waiting. After having a strong rum drink or a couple of beers with her, they go to an air-conditioned room that has TV an
d music…

Any efforts to increase tourism to Cuba merely enable the perpetuation of this repulsive practice.


Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Ranking Member
Committee on Foreign Affairs

"Political" Art to Cheer

From the NRO's Jay Nordlinger:

I just saw a thrilling picture, resulting from an excellent idea. You know about Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the Cuban prisoner of conscience who died in February after an 83-day hunger strike. Yes, 83 days. According to Yoani Sánchez, the famed blogger, Zapata's death has rallied the opposition on the island. A Cuban-born artist who lives in New Jersey, Geandy Pavón, had the aforementioned excellent idea. He is taking Zapata's picture and projecting it onto the façades of buildings. Just any buildings? No — buildings in the Free World that contain offices of the Cuban dictatorship. He has done this in New York (the Cuban mission to the U.N.). He has done it in Barcelona (the Cuban consulate there). And, on May 20, he did it in Washington, D.C. May 20 is the anniversary of Cuba's independence from Spain.

He projected Zapata's image onto the Cuban Interests Section, at 2630 16th St., N.W. This exercise, as Pavón says, "imposes the face of the victim upon the assassin, using light as an analogy of truth, reason, and justice." For the picture I saw, go here. It must have been all the more thrilling in person. Usually, I'm opposed to stunts, and especially to stunt art. This, I find righteous and wonderful.

The FARC's Geopolitical Base

Colombia's El Espectador newspaper revealed a secret intelligence report documenting the operations of the narco-terrorist group, FARC, in Venezuela and Cuba.

It shows the existence of cross-border guerrilla camps and the strategic triumvirate created to export Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's authoritarian model to Colombia.

In Venezuela's border, there are 1,500 FARC guerrillas spread amongst 28 camps designated to "provide relief to combatants that come from Colombia and to give them first aid." The border area is also used for narcotics air flights.

Furthermore, the report identifies Cuba as a geopolitical and economic center of the FARC's activities.

It describes a visit that FARC representatives, Liliana López Palacio, alias Olga Lucía Marín and Orlay Jurado Palomino, alias Hermes Aguilera, paid last August to Cuba, to discuss the group's international political initiatives.

One of these FARC representatives, Olga Marin, receives a $5,000 monthly stipend through the Cuban bank account of a Venezuelan government entity.

Chairman Castro's Dog

"I was Chairman Mao's dog. What he said to bite, I bit."

-- Jiang Qing (1914-1991), pseudonym of Chinese dictator Mao Zedong's last wife, also known as Madame Mao during her role in the radical political alliance known as the "Gang of Four."

Over the weekend -- and marking Cuban Independence Day (May 20th) -- marches and demonstrations were held on behalf of the Ladies in White and Cuba's pro-democracy movement throughout the world, from Chicago to Milan, Buenos Aires to Paris.

In a demonstration in front of the Cuban Embassy in Oslo, Norway, a Castro regime official came out, began shouting insults at the demonstrators and physically bit the hand of a young woman, Alexandra Joner, who was taping the event.

Obviously, Chairman Castro said bite.

Charlie Crist on Cuba Policy

Monday, May 24, 2010

P.S. During the interview, Sun Sentinel editor Earl Maucker insisted upon the supposed "hypocrisy" of the U.S. having normal relations with totalitarian regimes that are "as bad or worse" than Cuba.

However, he failed to give any examples. That's perhaps because Mr. Maucker is confused as to what a totalitarian regime is.

An authoritarian regime is one in which a single entity monopolizes political power. However, a totalitarian regime does much more. It attempts to control virtually every aspect of social and private life including the economy, education, art and science.

Aside from Cuba, the world's other prominent totalitarian regimes are North Korea and Burma.

Mr. Maucker is apparently unaware that the U.S. doesn't have normal relations with either.

Getting Advice From BP

As predicted two weeks ago, it was only a matter of time before the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico would become the new rallying cry for engagement with the Castro regime.

So here comes the Brooking Institution with a "scholarly" report on how to promote "U.S.-Cuba Environmental Cooperation."

What we couldn't predict is that the author of the report would be a retired BP executive who has been advocating for years to drill off Cuba's shores.

Talk about a conflict of interest. Obviously, Brookings is aware of this conflict for they've now conveniently kept the BP part off his bio-line.

That's like asking the Castro regime for advice on human rights.

The fact remains that Cuba has not drilled offshore, and will not be able to drill off shore -- despite years of talk and hype -- due to one reason:

The U.S. embargo makes it economically unfeasible. Period.

However, these "experts" would like for you to believe that lifting the embargo would actually protect Florida's coasts, for American companies would know how to do drill "safely."

If we would have listened to this "advice" years ago, there would have been drilling off Cuba's shores alright -- not to mention a heightened probability for environmental disaster.

And it would have all been courtesy of BP.

A Victory for Zapata, Fariñas & the Ladies

We fully subscribe to the sentiments of the "#OZT: I Accuse the Cuban Government" campaign, which is nearing 50,000 signatures, on the talks between the Castro dictatorship and the Catholic Church:

The willingness of the government to dialogue with the Church comes out of a specific context, which is impossible to conceal. This dialogue has arrived after the supreme sacrifice of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the hunger and thirst strike of Guillermo Fariñas, the marches of the Ladies in White and the Ladies in Support, the effective unity among the opposition, the exile, the Cuban civil society and the international community who joined for a fair demand the release of political prisoners and the respect of human rights in Cuba. Any release that presupposes the fracture of that unity on those factors goes against the interest of those who remain in prison.

Our commitment is with the 26 political prisoners for whom Guillermo Fariñas is carrying his hunger strike as well as with the victims of the Black Spring. But not only with them. Our goal is to not go back to the situation of Cuba in March 2003. The "#OZT: I Accuse the Cuban Government" campaign will last as long as there are political prisoners in Cuba and its citizens are denied the exercise of human rights.

A Hint of Leadership?

Or an effort to regain lost credibility? Time will tell.

From The Miami Herald's Editorial Board:

Leadership, at last, for Cuba's people

OUR OPINION: Catholic Church can be a catalyst for change

Finally, after a long silence, Cuba's Catholic Church is taking a stand, calling on the Castro regime to free 26 political prisoners who are in failing health.

About time.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Santiago Archbishop Dionisio García, head of the island's Bishops' Conference, met with Raúl Castro last week -- the first in an expected series of talks to deal with the dictatorship's abysmal treatment of Cubans, in and out of prison. The meeting, the first in five years between the regime's officials and church leaders, comes after the cardinal last month acknowledged in a Catholic magazine that Cuba is in economic crisis and noted that people are desperate for political and social change.

Ladies in White abused

It also comes after Spain, the European Union and many Latin American leaders have challenged the Castro government's mistreatment of the Ladies in White, women who walk peacefully in protest of their loved ones' imprisonment. The Obama Administration and world leaders also condemned Cuba's horrid prison conditions following the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died after more than 80 days in a hunger strike seeking better treatment of prisoners of conscience. And it's happening as dissident journalist Guillermo Fariñas has made headlines worldwide in a hunger strike calling for the release of the 26 ailing prisoners -- a demand that Gen. Castro labeled "blackmail" in April.

For now the Ladies have resumed their marches, but the Castro regime is pressuring them to split from a group of female supporters who have been walking with them. In typical Orwellian doublespeak the regime claims those supporters "distort" the issue.

Cardinal should speak up

In truth, Cubans have stepped up their quest for rights after 51 years of fear inspired by firing squads and "defense of the revolution" block captains who report to the government on neighbors' every move.

Cardinal Ortega has remained mum for too long. He has tried to collaborate with the regime in hopes of getting an opening, as Pope John Paul II called for during his 1998 visit to the communist island. But even as the world has opened to Cuba with more trade and tourism, Cuba has cracked down on its people, unable to accept dissent without imposing violent consequences.

This would not be the first time Cuba has freed prisoners, of course. The Castro brothers have a long history of making small moves in an attempt to score big points abroad. That's why the cardinal and bishops' efforts are so important. They have to seize this opportunity when key leaders and trading partners with Cuba are watching and demanding action. In a country run by old revolutionaries, stuck in a time warp of failed policies, Cuba's youth are restless.

The Church, as it did in Poland and other nations during the Cold War, can play a pivotal role in being a voice for those the regime wants to silence.

The State-Church Monologue

Sunday, May 23, 2010
A meeting between the self-appointed leaders of the Cuban dictatorship and Catholic Church have brought about much news and speculation.

Nonetheless, this meeting is as noteworthy for those excluded, as for those included.

Cuban-blogger Yoani Sanchez makes the precise point in the Huffington Post:

"There is limited discussion with that very important part of the nation not called to meet: civil society groups and associations. Something that is the responsibility of military and citizens, Catholics and atheists, party supporters and dissidents, should not be discussed only among those in uniform or cardinal's robes. Conspicuous by their absence in these meetings are the spokespeople of the injured people of Cuba, who have sons, husbands and fathers condemned for political reasons. How can you intercede for the injured without giving them, also, a chance to express themselves, without allowing them to be represented there, where their fate is being spoken of."

Fariñas: Ball is on Castro's Court

According to AFP:

Cuban dissident to end hunger strike if others freed

A Cuban opposition journalist said Saturday he was ready to end his nearly three-month hunger strike if the Cuban regime releases 10 political prisoners and agrees to a timeline to free others.

"When the number of those released reaches 10 and the Church tells me there is a timeline for others to be freed, I will end my strike," Guillermo Farinas told AFP via telephone from Santa Clara hospital in central Cuba, where he has been treated with an IV drip since March 11.

He said he had spoken to Catholic Church officials who agreed that "the government must take the first step, which must be the release of prisoners."

In his first ever meeting with Cuba's top two Church officials -- Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Episcopal Conference leader Archbishop Dionisio Garcia -- President Raul Castro said he was ready to consider resolving the thorny issue.

But Garcia said any talk about releasing them was off the table for now.