HAVANA — A leading rights activist says most of Cuba's 200 or more political prisoners would rather serve out long terms on the island than be part of an exchange for five communist agents imprisoned in the U.S., as Cuban President Raul Castro has suggested.
President Barack Obama has said Cuba should make the next move as both leaders try to thaw relations _ and that releasing political prisoners would be a significant step.
Castro responded in part by suggesting a prisoner swap _ sending all of Cuba's political prisoners, and their families, to the United States in exchange for the five convicted Cuban spies.
The prisoners themselves? They want nothing of such a deal, Havana's leading dissident said Monday.
"It's nearly unanimous among the prisoners that they not be exchanged for military men arrested red-handed in espionage activities in the United States," said Elizardo Sanchez of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation. "They would rather stay in prison."
Most prefer to stay in their homeland with their families and culture and fight for changes to the political system of their own country. They consider themselves patriots, and having risked everything to speak out _ their jobs, homes and family prospects _ they are committed to working from within to improve life in Cuba.
Sanchez, the most veteran of the island's rights activists, talks to numerous political prisoners and their relatives by phone each day, and updates detailed lists of inmates that he releases every six months. His reports are a key source of information for international groups monitoring Cuba's human rights situation.
Castro's government has unilaterally released "prisoners of conscience" before without suffering any political consequences inside Cuba. In February, four political prisoners were set free and immediately exiled to Spain, following human rights talks in Madrid. It was at least the fifth known release of a group of political prisoners by Cuba since the mid-1980s that followed an international appeal or negotiations.
The U.S. has swapped prisoners before with other countries _ notably in the case of KGB spy Rudolph Ivanovich Abel, traded to the Soviets in 1962 for imprisoned U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.
But Obama could suffer serious political fallout if he agreed to swap the so-called Cuban Five _ communist agents who were convicted of espionage in Miami in 2001. The ringleader was implicated in the death of four exiles killed when Cuban military fighters shot their planes down off the island's coast in 1996.
Senior State Department officials in Washington said Monday they knew about Castro's statement but were unaware if Havana had made an official prisoner swap proposal.
There are several similar lists of Cuban political prisoners compiled by different rights groups, and Obama has not specified which inmates he is talking about.
Sanchez's list numbers 205 and includes three men sentenced to death for violent acts, including two Salvadorans convicted in Havana hotel bombings that killed an Italian tourist.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said his group uses some of the Cuban commission's information, and also lists more than 200 political prisoners, but doesn't include anyone convicted of violent crimes.
Amnesty International says it has adopted 58 Cuban "prisoners of conscience," but it's unclear why its list is significantly shorter than the others or if it uses different criteria.
Castro clearly referred to the list Sanchez compiles during a passionate speech in Venezuela last week, offering to free political prisoners who include "confessed terrorists" when saying he would discuss "everything" with Obama.
Sanchez has suggested that the Salvadorans serve the rest of their terms in their own country.
"I would be happy if they released some or all, but our position is that we want the liberation of all, without conditions," he said.
Vivanco called Castro's proposal "an absurd proposition," equating five government agents with "more than 200 political prisoners serving time simply because they tried to exercise fundamental freedoms _ free speech, the right to association."
Vivanco accompanied France Libertes, a French human rights group led by former first lady Danielle Mitterand, on a 1995 trip to Cuba that resulted in the release of six political prisoners, including two prominent dissidents.
As a congressman, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson secured the release of three Cuban political prisoners during talks with Raul Castro's older brother Fidel in Cuba in 1996, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson facilitated the liberation of 48 prisoners of conscience during a 1984 trip to Havana.
The Cuban government released 299 prisoners on humanitarian grounds, including dissidents but mostly common criminals, as a gesture to Pope John Paul II after his papal visit in January 1998.
Vivanco acknowledged these previous releases, but said the communist government has not changed its criminal code, which includes vague charges that presume guilt before the fact, such as "social dangerousness," or inhibit free speech as "enemy propaganda."
"Most of these are people who simply have a disagreement with the government, who then make their disagreement public," he said. "Any discussion of engagement with Cuba needs to take into account that Cuba is the last country in the hemisphere that represses nearly every form of political dissent."
Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.