Madrid: Seven Cuban dissidents arrived in Spain on Tuesday, the first batch of a group of 52 political prisoners which Havana agreed to free in the biggest gesture by the island`s government in a decade.
The seven men, who arrived at Madrid`s Barajas airports on two separate commercial flights along with 33 close family members, said their release marks "the start of a new stage for the future of Cuba."
"We hope that those who remain in Cuba will enjoy the same freedom as we do," they said in a joint statement read out by one of the seven dissidents, 65-year-old journalist Julio Cesar Galvez, in a reference to others still held on the Caribbean communist island.
The seven dissidents, who are between the ages of 33 and 65 and who all have health problems, were sentenced in 2003 to prison terms of between 15 and 24 years.
They smiled and made a "V" sign with their fingers at the end of their brief news conference before being taken to a Madrid hotel.
Cuba agreed last Wednesday to gradually free 52 political prisoners in a surprise deal between the Roman Catholic Church after a hunger strike to near-death by dissident Guillermo Farinas.
Havana wants to avoid a repeat of the death in detention of dissident Orlando Zapata on February 23 as it seeks closer international ties to improve its grim economic situation.
On learning of the surprise church-state deal, psychologist and online journalist Farinas -- one of the regime`s fiercest critics -- ended a more than four-month hunger strike.
Longtime critics of the regime said it was too soon to tell if the agreement marks a policy shift away from decades of hardline policy by ailing Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and his brother, President Raul Castro.
"We have to be cautious and wait to see how things evolve," said Carlos Alberto Montaner, a writer and professor who heads the Union Liberal Cubana (ULC), a political party founded in Madrid in 1989 by a group of Cuban exiles.
"Let us hope that it is the beginning of of a correction of the Cuban government`s repressive policies but we must remain alert because it is not the annulment of the policy of repression but instead a change in the way the policy is enforced," he said to a news agency.
"They have substituted it it with harassment, beatings, acts of rejection, intimidation, instead of imprisonments," he added.
The US State Department on Tuesday welcomed the release of the seven dissidents, saying it was a "positive development" and called for the "immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners".
According to Cuban dissidents, there will still be 115 political prisoners in Cuba -- only one-party Communist regime in the Americas -- even after all the 52 dissidents are released.
Spain, which helped broker the deal between the Cuban government and the Church, has said it is willing to receive all of the prisoners after their release.
Church officials have said that so far, 20 of the 52 had agreed to leave Cuba, a former Spanish colony, for Spain.
In addition to the first seven, the thirteen other political prisoners are expected to depart Cuba for Spain over the coming days, according to Cuba`s Roman Catholic Church.
The releases of the seven came just as Fidel Castro, who turns 84 this month, appeared on television for the first time in almost a year.
In an interview broadcast on Monday night, the revolutionary icon spoke of an "imminent" US and Israeli attack on Iran, and blamed the United States for secretly sinking a South Korean warship in March, then accusing North Korea of being behind the incident.