WASHINGTON — New Cuban leader Raul Castro would consider exchanging dissidents held in Cuban jails for five Cuban intelligence agents imprisoned in the United States as spies, a top Vatican official said in an interview.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone told the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano in an interview published Friday that the subject came up during a meeting he had with the new Cuban leader, who officially replaced his ailing brother Fidel last weekend.
Speculation that Cuba might be interested in such a swap has been widespread in Havana since the Cuban government launched a massive campaign for the release of the five Cuban agents, who were convicted in a Miami federal court in 2001. But Bertone's interview is the first confirmation that the Cuban government is interested in an exchange.
The five Cubans are serving U.S. jail sentences on charges of spying for Havana. The Cuban government insists, however, that the five were sent to Miami to infiltrate anti-Castro groups there and avert terrorist attacks on Cuba and were not spying on U.S. government agencies.
Bertone said that Castro mentioned the five agents after Bertone told him that the church would consider the release of some of the island's dissidents a humanitarian gesture.
''The president underlined the importance of practicing reciprocity,'' Bertone said, bringing up " the problem of the five Cuban prisoners in the United States and therefore the question of a humanitarian treatment for them, too, with the eventual possibility of an exchange.''
Bertone said that Castro was prepared to deal ''with great openness'' and ''make concrete gestures, in the presence of reciprocity, with respect to the identity and the sovereignty of the Cuban people.''
The State Department reacted coolly to the idea.
''It is important to underscore that these prisoners in the United States were convicted through due process of U.S. law and sentenced for their crimes,'' said Heide Bronke, a State Department spokeswoman. "The political prisoners have committed no crimes. There is no equivalence between the two.''
Still, Bertone's interview reveals an unusual openness by Raul Castro to discuss human-rights issues.
Bertone said that he asked that prisoners be allowed access to spiritual services. He handed Castro a list of prisoners "to be taken into account for humanitarian reasons.''
Several Cuban dissidents are said to be in poor health.
Bertone also said the Vatican would seek to reduce the economic sanctions against the island. ''Certainly, this must entail a move towards greater liberty, towards a greater recognition of personal, social, political and economic rights,'' he added.
Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to meet with President Bush April 16 in Washington.