- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 20, 2010

HAVANA | U.S. diplomats in Havana have told relatives of imprisoned Cuban dissidents that it will be more difficult for them to apply for asylum in America if they first accept a church-brokered deal to trade prison for exile in Spain.

The meetings, confirmed by the family members of six imprisoned dissidents, come at a delicate time and could complicate releases of 52 activists, journalists and opposition leaders arrested in a 2003 crackdown.

Under a deal brokered by Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega earlier this month, Cuba has already freed 11 political prisoners and flown them to Madrid. Nine others have accepted the offer and are expected to arrive in coming days.

The rest of the imprisoned dissidents either have refused to go or have not yet been contacted by Roman Catholic church officials. The church has said exile in Spain is an “option,” but has not specified what will happen to those who refuse to leave the country.

The family members of several dissidents who have not yet accepted Spanish asylum met Tuesday with officials at the U.S. Interests Section, which Washington maintains in Havana instead of an embassy. Other family members are expected to visit the Interests Section in coming days.

After the meetings, the relatives told the Associated Press they were informed they would not be allowed to apply for asylum in the United States from Spain, but could petition for residence like any other would-be immigrant.

“We came here thinking they would give us some option [of applying for asylum from Spain], but they won’t,” said Sofia Garcia, whose husband, Jose Miguel Martinez, has been serving a 13-year sentence for treason.

She said she was told that if the family goes to Spain, they would have to apply for residence in the United States through regular channels, a process that can take years and usually requires a sponsor.

It means a stark choice for some of the dissidents, many of whom have family in the United States: Stay in Cuba and try to win U.S. asylum, or leave immediately for Spain and take themselves out of consideration.

Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman at the Interests Section, confirmed that individual meetings were taking place to answer questions the family members might have about seeking asylum.

Ms. Berbena said the Cubans were being informed that any asylum applications from Spain would be handled differently from those made inside Cuba.