PANAMA CITY, Panama -- Jesse Jackson, beginning a tour of Central America, announced Saturday he will ask Cuban President Fidel Castro to release political prisoners -- a move aides said could be the trip's highlight.
Jackson, who boosted his campaign for the presidency last December when he won release of U.S. airman Robert Goodman from Syria, suggested that if Castro agrees, the prisoners could be given American visas.
Jackson said later he already has had contacts with Cuban officials about the Cuban prisoners but declined to discuss the matter further. Jackson's first official meeting in Panama was with President Jorge Illueca at the ornate presidential palace on the Bay of Panama.
Illueca said Jackson's support for the Central American peace efforts of the Contadora nations is 'very important' because it makes Americans aware of the troubles in the region.
Panamanian Foreign Minister Oyden Ortega, who joined the hour-long palace meeting, said Jackson's support is a 'great help toward the conclusion of this agreement for a regional peace.'
At a news conference, Jackson said more than 'lip service' must be given to peace efforts in Central America and he criticized President Reagan for having allowed the CIA to be involved in mining Nicaragua's harbors.
Jackson also said that when he visits Cuba on Tuesday he will ask Castro to release 21 prisoners whose names Jackson received from Cuban-American activists.
One member of Jackson's delegation said the effort to free the prisoners could be 'the goodies that we bring home. We want to spring some of them.'
Jackson put it more formally.
'We shall make an appeal for the release of the names that we have and hope that some process will be established that, not only will people who are held on that basis be released, but that our nation will offer visas that they might have relief and a way out,' he told reporters.
Later Jackson told reporters he already made contact with Cuban officials about the prisoners. 'There are so many Americans interested, we shall raise it. But at this time, I do not want to discuss it any further because further details could affect our dialogue,' Jackson told reporters.
Jack Mendelsohn, a Boston Unitarian minister and a member of Jackson's selegation, said there had been no 'negative feedback' from the Cubans on the prisoner issue. 'They haven't said no,' Mendelsohn said.
Jackson declined to answer when asked whether he hopes to bring any prisoners home with him from Havana. Jackson met Saturday night with Nicky Barletta, Panama's president-elect scheduled to take office in October. The two knew each other from Jackson's previous visit to Panama in 1977. Barletta, speaking to reporters as he met Jackson in an informal setting at the ruling party's headquarters, expressed support for the Salvadoran government and called President Jose Napoleon Duarte 'a very courageous man.' He said Jackson's visit to the region 'will be useful because it will dramatize the need to achieve peace.'
Demonstrators who claim Barletta's election was a fraud demonstrated outside the party headquarters during the meeting. Several dozen demonstrators also met Jackson at the Don Bosco Catholic Church later where Jackson delivered a sermon on peace in Central America to about 1,000 people. They chanted, 'Barletta, dictador (Spanish for dictator).'
In his sermon Jackson said the United States has 'too often' responded to unrest in the region 'in precisely the opposite manner that it should -- sending more arms and bombs to make major criminals out of petty criminals instead of insisting on economic aid and trade that might alleviate some of the country's problems.'
Jackson plans to spend six days in the Central American region, two of them in Cuba. His schedule calls for Saturday and Sunday talks in Panama, a meeting with El Salvador President Jose Napoleon Duarte on Monday, Cuban talks on Tuesday and Wednesday and meetings with Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega Thursday. He will return to Washington Thursday night.
The civil rights leader flew to Panama on a chartered night flight from Chicago. He said his trip is intended to foster discussions aimed at heading off a major war in Central America. But plans fell through on a hoped-for meeting with foreign ministers of the Contadora nations - Panama, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela -- who are trying to work out a peace plan for the region.