Cuba's Roman Catholic Church says the government has agreed to release 52 political prisoners, and that five would be allowed to go free within hours and leave for Spain.
The archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega, released a statement Wednesday, saying the remaining 47 would be freed in the coming months. The deal was announced in Havana after Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos met with Ortega, President Raul Castro and other officials. Moratinos has been in Cuba this week to discuss human rights and other topics.
It was not clear, however, which dissidents would win their freedom in what would be the island's largest mass liberation of political prisoners in years. The Catholic Church says the 52 were among 75 people arrested in 2003 during a government crackdown on dissent.
A U.S. State Department official said Washington is checking on the reports of the Cuban prisoner release and that if they are true, then "obviously," the United States would welcome that.
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner also said the U.S. has been closely monitoring, in particular, the case of dissident Guillermo Farinas, who has been on a hunger strike for more than four months.
Cuba has said Farinas is in danger of dying. The state-run newspaper, Granma, reported Saturday that the opposition activist has a blood clot in his neck and that the clot has left him in danger of dying, even though he has gained weight by intravenous feeding.
The paper did not refer to the reason for Farinas's hunger strike or give details of his background of political protest and activism.
The 48-year-old Farinas began refusing food in late February to demand that authorities free dozens of political prisoners. He also started the fast to protest the death of another dissident, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died after his own long hunger strike in prison.
Zapata's death prompted international criticism of the Cuban government.
Spain had offered exile to Farinas to allow him to regain his health, but he rejected the offer.
On Monday, the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights said the number of political prisoners in Cuba has dropped to 167 from 201 at the start of this year.
Cuba says it has no political prisoners, only "mercenaries" who Havana claims are working with the United States to undermine Cuban communism.