By Frances Kerry
HAVANA, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Cuba's decision to free 300 prisoners, some of them political, does not mean the island is opening up to dissidence, Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina said on Sunday.
Robaina was asked by foreign reporters if the pardons, made in response to an appeal from the Vatican during Pope John Paul's visit to Cuba last month, would mean more tolerance for political opposition on the communist-ruled island.
"The pardon has not been made to stimulate acts of internal dissidence,'' Robaina said, stressing that the country would continue to function "normally.''
"He who returns to the street has the same space as we all have in the street,'' he added.
His comments reflected the tone of an article on the releases in the Communist Party newspaper Granma on Friday that said Cuba's revolution was "generous but firm.'' It made plain authorities would still take a stern view of "counter-revolution.''
Asked about the possibility of changing Cuba's penal code, that includes several offenses that curb political opposition, Robaina said Cuba intended to keep its laws in place.
The prisoner releases, announced by the Vatican and the Cuban Foreign Ministry on Thursday, have been welcomed by the Vatican and given a more cautious welcome by Cuba's longstanding political foe, the United States.
Washington, which maintains a 36-year-old economic embargo against the island, said on Friday it was too early to judge whether the releases would merit a U.S. gesture in response.
Robaina said the pardons were in response to a Vatican request and Cuba was not interested in making moves to win favor with the United States.
"I think that the United States should have made (its policy) more flexible a long time ago,'' he said. "Nothing justifies the policy they impose on us,'' he added.
Cuba has said a total of about 300 prisoners will be released, 74 of them from a list of 270 names given to the authorities by Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano during the Pope's landmark Jan. 21-25 visit to the island. The rest will be freed for humanitarian reasons such as old age or poor health.
It was not still clear how many of those released would be political prisoners.
A leading dissident, Elizardo Sanchez, said 33 political prisoners had been released by Saturday evening.
Robaina was asked about several specific prisoners and whether they would be released. He declined to answer.
"We don't feel obliged to answer to anyone about who is or is not on the list (of those to be released),'' he said.
There has been special interest in dissident circles and from western governments in whether the releases will include four prominent dissidents -- Vladimiro Roca, Martha Beatriz Roque, Felix Bonne and Rene Gomez Manzano -- who were jailed last July and are still awaiting trial.
The four had attracted attention by issuing a detailed criticism of the Communist Party's central political document for its Fifth Congress last October, and by holding two news conferences for foreign journalists before their arrest. REUTERS