HAVANA — President Raul Castro on Friday 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.
He did, however, announce that Cuba will free 2,900 prisoners, including some convicted of political crimes. The amnesty timed ahead of a spring visit by Pope Benedict XVI will not include a jailed American, Alan Gross, whose case has become a sticking point between Havana and Washington.
Cuba has been awash in speculation the much-hated travel 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 greatly 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.
Amnesty for prisoners
Before Castro's speech, the Council of State agreed to release the 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.
It said those convicted of serious crimes like 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.
"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 behavior."
The government did not directly link the release with the Pope's visit, but said the prisoners would be freed after "numerous" requests by family members and religious institutions.
American not included
Gross, a 62-year-old American government subcontractor, was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in jail for crimes against the state.
Gross's family concedes he was on a USAID funded democracy building program, but insists his goal was simply to help the island's tiny Jewish community gain better access to the Internet. Cuba says the programs seek to overthrow the government.
Gross's supporters have appealed to Raul Castro for a humanitarian release. They say Gross — who was obese when he was arrested — has lost more than 100 pounds in jail and is now gaunt and increasingly depressed. Meanwhile, his daughter and elderly mother have both been diagnosed with cancer.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.