By ANITA SNOW
.c The Associated Press
HAVANA (AP) - To get his mind off his jailed brother, sculptor Jorge Gomez sits on his apartment balcony, shaping rough blocks of ebony into smooth abstract shapes, women's torsos and the heads of African warriors.
At any moment the phone might ring with news of whether Cuba's communist government will honor Pope John Paul II's request for the release of "prisoners of conscience.'' Gomez's brother Rene is one of them.
"I am pretty sure they are going to let him out,'' Gomez, 65, said in the apartment he shared with Rene, a dissident and international law attorney. "The question is whether they will let him stay in Cuba.''
In the past, the Cuban government often has made leaving the country a condition of such releases.
Hundreds of relatives of prisoners across this Caribbean island have been anxiously awaiting a decision on prisoner releases. Vatican officials requested clemency on Jan. 24, during John Paul's historic visit to Cuba, for several hundred inmates.
No specific number or names have been made public. But human rights activists believe candidates include Gomez and three other leading dissidents arrested last summer for distributing a critique of the draft plan for the Cuban Communist Party's 5th Party Congress.
The critique said the plan focused on the glories of Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution but presented no solutions to the country's severe economic crisis.
The four also held two news conferences with foreign journalists - bold for Cuba's generally timid dissidents.
"They really didn't do anything,'' said Elena Roque, 58, whose sister, independent economist Marta Beatriz Roque, is among the four. "They just wrote that document.''
The dissidents, leading members of the opposition coalition Concilio Cubano, were picked up in mid-July but relatives say they were never charged or tried. The others are engineer Felix Bonne and Vladimiro Roca, son of the late Cuban Communist Party leader Blas Roca.
When the arrests were made, Cuban authorities said all governments have the right to arrest those who act against it, and that the four had committed "counter-revolutionary'' acts.
The Cuban government has made no announcement about prisoner releases, but National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon has said the pope's call "will be considered with all seriousness.''
Cuban officials maintain that the pope regularly asks for clemency for prisoners in most countries he visits, and insist that rights activists have focused too much on his request for releases here.
Human rights groups say Cuba holds at least 500 political prisoners. Cuba says it holds only common criminals, including those accused of "counter-revolutionary'' acts such as sabotage, espionage and "enemy propaganda'' - publishing or broadcasting attacks against the government.
In the eastern city of Santiago, Caridad Penon is waiting to hear whether the government will release her husband, physician and rights activist Dr. Dessi Mendoza, who is charged with enemy propaganda.
"It would be a real humanitarian act,'' Penon said. "I am all alone here with our three children.''
Mendoza, 43, was convicted in June 1997 in a trial that focused on charges that he exaggerated information to foreign reporters about a dengue outbreak in Santiago.
The government said just two people were killed by the mosquito-borne disease and that it was quickly brought under control. At the time, dengue outbreaks were common in nearby countries - often with far more fatalities.
John Paul encouraged efforts to return "prisoners of conscience'' to Cuban society. That would be a significant policy change for the Cuban government, but the pontiff said it also would be "a gesture which honors the authority promoting it.''