The U.S. government said Monday that Cuba had completed its promise to release 53 political prisoners, setting the stage for talks next week to begin the process of normalizing diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana.
A senior U.S. administration official traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry in Islamabad told reporters that the United States had verified that all the prisoners had been freed.
“We welcome this very positive development and are pleased that the Cuban government followed through on this commitment,” Marie Harf, a State Department spokesperson, said during a press briefing.
The administration didn’t release the names on the list but they were sent to members of Congress.
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Cuba pledged to release the prisoners Dec. 17 — the same day the United States and Cuba announced they would be restoring diplomatic relations after 53 years of hostility. Even though the U.S. had advocated for release of the prisoners, it was a separate gesture on the part of the Cubans and not part of the diplomatic deal.
All those who were released had been followed by human rights organizations and jailed “for exercising internationally protected freedoms or for their promotion of political and social reforms in Cuba,” Harf said.
Human rights monitors in Miami and Cuba said Monday that they had only been able to independently confirm that 42 political prisoners had been released in recent weeks.
“According to all our information and that gathered by Elizardo Sánchez in Cuba, we are still 11 short. It is certainly a mystery,” said Francisco “Pepe” Hernández, director of the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba. Sánchez heads the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission.
But the State Department cleared up the mystery on Monday.
Human rights activists, who weren’t initially privy to the list, began counting recently released political prisoners around the time of the Dec. 17 announcement. But some dissidents were released earlier than that, according to Harf, accounting for the discrepancy in numbers.
“A small number of the people on the list we gave them [the Cubans] during the summer were slated for release and then were released as scheduled in the summer and fall after we had shared the list,” she said.
Cuba and the United States began secret negotiations in mid-2013 for the release of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who was serving a 15-year sentence in Cuba, and for the release of Cuban spies jailed in the United States. That led to the diplomatic thaw, the release of Gross, three Cuban spies and a CIA asset who had been jailed in Cuba.
Hernández, who is also president of the Cuban American National Foundation, said human rights monitors had hoped all the prisoners would be released unconditionally but that conditions had been imposed on some.
Sonia Garro, a member of the Ladies in White, her husband Ramón Alejandro Muñoz González and their neighbor Eugenio Hernández, who had been in pre-trial detention since March 2012, were released to their homes but charges are still pending against them.
The charges stem for an act of repudiation staged by government supporters outside the couple’s home. Cuba’s public prosecutor said that during the disturbance, objects —including a television set — were thrown at state security agents.
The three were among the political prisoners released before Dec. 17.
Others, said Pepe Hernández, were released on an “extra-penal license,” something akin to probation — meaning they could be returned to jail if they run afoul of Cuban authorities. “They are not allowed to leave the country,” he said.
Iván Fernández Depestre, who was released last Thursday, said he intends to keep fighting for political prisoners still in Cuban jails. Fernández was arrested on July 30, 2013, and charged with “dangerousness.” He told the Cuban Democratic Directorate by phone shortly after he arrived at his home that his release came as a surprise. “I was told I was being transferred to another province but was released,” he said.
Six Cuban-American members of Congress sent a letter to Kerry on Friday urging the State Department and the Obama administration to stop normalization efforts with Cuba. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson is scheduled to head a U.S. delegation to Havana next week to talk about the next steps in the process.
The signatories to the letter were: South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, South Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, South Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, New Jersey Democratic Rep. Albio Sires, and Rep. Alex Mooney, a Republican from West Virginia whose mother is a Cuban exile.
“This misguided shift in policy is both bad for our national security and is against our very core ideals and beliefs.” they said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had previously sent a letter to the White House objecting to the thaw and urging President Barack Obama to cancel Jacobson’s trip.
“We know there are going to be human rights concerns we still have when it comes to Cuba, but we are very pleased that they followed through on this commitment and are looking forward to Assistant Secretary Jacobson’s trip later this month,” Harf said.
Others in Congress, especially legislators from the farm states, say the U.S. should go even further in normalizing relations with Cuba. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., is among those who think the embargo should be lifted.
CubaNow also hailed the release of the 53. It “serves as a testament to what the United States can achieve when it chooses to engage,” said Ric Herrero, executive director of the organization that believes engagement is the best way to bring about change in Cuba. “By contrast, the number of political prisoner releases secured through U.S. efforts under the two decade-old Helms-Burton Act has been zero.”
Despite the recent prisoner releases, other long-term prisoners remain in Cuban jails. The United States also remains concerned about short-term detentions, said Harf. To discourage protest activities, Cuba picks up dissidents and sometimes only holds them for a matter of hours or overnight.
Harf said the United States is pleased that some members of Congress shared the names on the list but she said they won’t be posted on a U.S. government website.
“We also don’t want to leave the impression by posting it, for example, on a government website, that these are the only ones we care about or that this was the only checklist by which we would judge Cuba’s human rights situation,” Harf said.