Cuba pardons thousands of prisoners

Cuba's supreme governing body on Friday pardoned nearly 3,000 prisoners, including some convicted of political crimes. But despite a year of free-market reforms, the travel ban to the United States will remain in place.

But President Raul Castro refuses to ease travel ban to U.S.

President Raul Castro delivers the closing speech during a parliamentary session in Havana, Cuba, on Friday. He told legislators the country was not yet ready to end travel bans to the United States. (Ismael Francisco/ Prensa Latina/AP)

Cuba's supreme governing body on Friday pardoned nearly 3,000 prisoners, including some convicted of political crimes.

The Council of State agreed to release 2,900 prisoners, among them inmates who are more than 60 years old or are ailing, women and young people who don't have long criminal records, the island's Prensa Latina news agency reported Friday.

It said those convicted of serious crimes such as murder, espionage or drug trafficking would not be part of the amnesty, though it added that some people convicted of political crimes were on the release list. No details on when the releases will occur were given.

"Some people condemned for crimes against state security will be freed," read an official government communique cited by Prensa Latina. "All of them have completed an important portion of their sentence and shown good behaviour."

No mention was made of Alan Gross, American government subcontractor arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in jail for crimes against the state. That case has frozen already icy relations between Washington and Havana.

Cuba this year freed the last of some 75 political prisoners arrested in a notorious 2003 sweep. While others remain jailed for politically motivated crimes, most of those were involved in acts of violence such as hijacking.

Rights group Amnesty International no longer includes any Cuban prisoners among its list of "prisoners of conscience" around the world.

In another development, President Raul Castro put on ice highly anticipated plans to ease travel restrictions on Cubans, telling lawmakers the nation would not be pressured into moving too fast and citing continued aggression from the United States as the reason for his cautious approach.

Free-market reforms

Cuba has been awash in speculation the much-hated regulations, which prevent most Cubans from leaving the island, might be lifted during Friday's session of the National Assembly. But Castro said the time still wasn't right, despite a year of free-market reforms that has seen the Communist government legalize a real estate market and increase private business ownership.

"Some have been pressuring us to take the step ... as if we were talking about something insignificant, and not the destiny of the revolution," Castro said, adding that those calling for an end to the travel restrictions "are forgetting the exceptional circumstances under which Cuba lives, encircled by the hostile policy … of the U.S. government."

Castro criticized U.S. President Barack Obama, saying he was the 11th American president since the 1959 revolution led by his brother Fidel, and appeared "not to understand" the sacrifices Cuba had made in its struggle for independence and sovereignty, including the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as Washington's 49-year trade and travel embargo.

"Sometimes, he [Obama] gives the impression he has not even been informed of this reality," Castro said, repeating his willingness to normalize relations with the U.S. under the right conditions.

Thousands of Cuban-Americans such as these in Miami are taking advantage of the American government's relaxed travel regulations to return to their former home for Christmas. (Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)