Cuba's decision to release 52 political prisoners Havana does not signal any shift in the communist regime's hold over the island, US analysts said Tuesday.
Havana's release of seven of the dissidents to Spain Monday, ahead of four more expected transfers in the coming days, came as former Cuba leader Fidel Castro's gave his first television interview in almost a year, a move that analysts said was to distract the population of the one-party state.
Castro's appearance "contradicts those who thought there might be a change underway in Cuba, or a move towards closer, better relations with the United States," Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, told AFP.
"Nothing has changed in Cuba" following the dissidents' release, he said, adding that while President Raul Castro was handling day-to-day leadership in the country, "the important decisions, especially in foreign policy" were still being made in consultation with his older brother, Fidel.
Some observers have seen the releases as signalling a shift away from decades of hardline policy by Fidel and Raul, but critics have been quick to shoot down such a possibility.
The previous large-scale release of prisoners came in 1998, following a visit by then-pope John Paul II, with 300 dissidents spared jail time by a presidential pardon. Experts point out that that move was not followed by any large-scale lifting of oppressive measures since then, as hoped at the time.
The releases to Spain "do not imply a change in the repressive regime," insisted Angel De Fana, Miami-based director of the group Plantados of former Cuban political prisoners.
"These people are forced to leave because if they wanted to stay in Cuba, they would remain under a totalitarian regime and go back to being incarcerated."
The purpose of Fidel's TV appearance, according to Cuba expert Uva de Aragon at Florida International University, "was to distract attention from the release of the political prisoners."
After previous releases of dissidents, noted de Aragon, an associate director at Florida's Cuban Research Institute, "nothing changed, as other prisoners are taken."
Cuba agreed to gradually free 52 political prisoners -- the biggest gesture of its kind in a decade -- in a surprise deal between the Roman Catholic Church after a hunger strike to near-death by dissident Guillermo Farinas.
And according to the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission, even after all the 52 inmates are released, there will still be 115 political prisoners held in Cuba, the only one-party Communist system in the Americas, where censorship is enforced with an iron fist.
US officials have said the release of political prisoners is a necessary step before the two governments can improve their often strained relations, with a decades-long US trade embargo still in place.
The Cuban government, however, which consistently skirts the issue in its official media outlets, still denies holding any political prisoners, saying they are mercenaries in the pay of the United States.