By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - Oscar Manuel Espinosa Chepe, a dissident Cuban economist whose work was censored by the government, died in Spain on Monday at age 72 after battling chronic liver disease and cancer, his wife announced on Facebook.
Espinosa, a soft-spoken man known to friends and colleagues as Chepe, was one of 75 dissidents sentenced to long prison terms in an April 2003 crackdown on the opposition and named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.
Espinosa's health quickly deteriorated in prison and he was paroled for health reasons in November 2004. He was repeatedly hospitalized in the past few years as his health worsened and in March he went to Spain for treatment after the Spanish government interceded on his behalf.
Espinosa had suffered from liver disease for more than 20 years and more recently cancer.
Espinosa was a prolific writer of articles criticizing Cuban economic policy before and after his arrest. He wrote two books in recent years and was considered an important source of information by academics and Cuba experts abroad, although his work was censored in Cuba.
The U.S. State Department expressed "great sorrow" over news of his death. "He was a tireless champion for improving economic policy and human rights in Cuba, and he remained optimistic that the country he loved would experience economic prosperity and democratic governance," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement.
"Oscar was one of Cuba's best informed and courageous economists," said Cuban-American economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh. "His work, always fully documented, up-to-date, objective, insightful and analytical, was influential and abundantly quoted in my own work.
"He sacrificed his health and life for Cuba."
Mesa-Lago said that after Espinosa's release from prison, a group of internationally known economists wrote a letter to the Spanish government seeking a visa on Espinosa's behalf but he decided to stay and keep writing in Cuba.
Espinosa served in the 1960s on then-Prime Minister Fidel Castro's economic advisory committee before being posted to Belgrade in 1970, where he coordinated economic cooperation between Cuba and Hungary, as well as the former Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia for more than a decade.
Espinosa returned to Cuba in the 1980s and worked for the central bank until he was fired in 1996 because of his disagreements with economic policy.
He complained of constant surveillance by Cuban security officers outside his cramped one-bedroom home in Havana, where he received visitors in a small living room lined wall-to-wall with books.
Espinosa is survived by his wife, independent journalist Miriam Leiva, who was forced from her job with the Foreign Ministry at the same time as Espinosa lost his government job.
While Espinosa was imprisoned his wife became a founder of the Ladies in White, an organization of female relatives of political prisoners.
"He was an important economist in the government and he raised the red flag that something had to be done. He paid a big price for that. His health really took a beating in jail," said Carlos Saladrigas, head of The Cuba Study Group, an organization of Cuban-American businessmen working for reconciliation with their homeland.
Saladrigas said Espinosa had raised many of the same questions about Cuba's Soviet-style economy that are now being freely debated on the Communist-run Caribbean island as President Raul Castro, who replaced his ailing brother Fidel in 2008, presides over its reform.
"He told me once, 'It's ironic that I was thrown in prison for saying things that Raul is saying now,'" Saladrigas said.
(Reporting by Marc Frank; Additional reporting by David Adams in Miami; Editing by Bill Trott and Sandra Maler)