Cuban President Raul Castro (R) attends the second annual session of the National Assembly
President Raul Castro announced plans to pardon some 3,000 prisoners for "humanitarian reasons," a group amnesty of unprecedented size, and "gradually" reform onerous laws restricting foreign travel.
The pardons include 86 foreign nationals from 25 different countries, and will take place "in the coming days," Castro said in a closing address to the National Assembly.
However US contractor Alan Gross, who is jailed in Cuba for espionage, will not be among those to be released, a top Foreign Ministry official told AFP.
Gross -- a State Department contractor arrested in December 2009 for delivering laptops and communications gear to Cuba's small Jewish community -- "will not be on the list" of foreigners to be pardoned, Josefina Vidal, a senior official with Cuba's foreign ministry, told AFP.
Castro, speaking at the close of the second session of Cuba's National Assembly on Friday, said that factors that played into the pardon decision included requests from the Catholic Church and various Protestant churches, and the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
The pardon is the largest ever under the communist regime, much larger that the 299 prisoners released ahead of the visit of Pope John Paul II in January 1998.
Cubans were intensely and emotionally keen to hear about migration reform, which Castro -- the ex-defence chief who took over from his brother, revolutionary icon Fidel Castro, in July 2006 -- has been promised but not yet delivered.
"I reaffirm my unswerving will to gradually introduce the changes required in this complicated area," Raul Castro said in the speech.
Many people "consider a new migratory policy an urgent issue, forgetting the exceptional circumstances that Cuba is going through," Castro said.
He referred to the US trade embargo on the island and Washington's alleged "subversive" policy, "always on the lookout for any opportunity to reach its known purposes."
Neither the communist government nor the state-run media have given any details on the migration reforms being considered.
Local experts believe Castro intends to end the requirement of exit visas (for Cubans on the island), entrance visas (for Cubans living overseas who return home) and the legal status of "permanent emigrant."
Cubans usually can only leave the country when they have received a letter of invitation from overseas. Then, they have to file for permission for an exit visa, just at the start of a maze-like bureaucratic process that costs about 500 dollars.
They also need entry visas from countries to which they would travel.
The price is near insurmountable in countries like Cuba, where doctors and street cleaners alike make about 20 dollars a month.
The Roman Catholic Church and regime-friendly personalities have joined a chorus of Cubans calling for an end to the rules, including one that penalizes "permanent emigrants" from the only one-party Communist regime in the Americas.
Those who are deemed to have left illegally (permanent emigrants) in essence are classed as defectors, their homes and assets seized.
In the speech Castro did not give details about who would be released, but did say that among the foreigners there were 13 women. The release of the foreigners would depend on "whether the governments of their countries of origin accept their repatriation," Castro said.
However the highest-profile prisoner, US citizen Gross, will not be leaving.