Havana: The wives and mothers of Cuba`s most prominent political prisoners marched through the leafy streets of the capital on Sunday, but their demands that the government honour an agreement to release their loved ones by the end of the day went unheeded.
The deadline passed at midnight without any word on the men`s fate, setting up a standoff between President Raul Castro and the island`s small but vocal opposition community. One dissident vowed to start a hunger strike later Monday if the 13 prisoners are not in their homes, and a human rights leader warned the government was playing with fire.
"To not release them would be fatal to the promise given to the Church, and a fraud against the international community," Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said hours ahead of the deadline.
Castro agreed following a meeting with Roman Catholic Cardinal Jamie Ortega to release 52 prisoners of conscience held since a 2003 crackdown on peaceful dissent. The July 07 deal called for all the prisoners to be free in three to four months, a period that ended at midnight Sunday.
A prominent church official expressed surprise at the lack of progress.
"It is not what we thought would happen," Father Jose Felix Perez, who coordinates Cuba`s Catholic Bishops Conference, said on Sunday as it became increasingly clear no releases were imminent. Felix Perez made the comments after celebrating Mass for the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, the dissident group made up of family members of the 2003 prisoners.
Cuban officials have declined to comment on the deadline.
At first, the government moved swiftly to make good on the deal, sending 39 prisoners into exile in Spain, along with their families. Authorities even agreed to release another 14 prisoners who were in jail for violent — but politically motivated — crimes. They too were sent to Spain, though the agreement struck with the Church made no mention of exile being a condition for release.
But progress has ground to a halt recently.
The remaining 13 prisoners of conscience have refused to leave the island, a direct challenge to the government. Some say they will continue their fight for democratic political change the moment they leave jail.
As the deadline passed, a confrontation appeared to be looming.