Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Obama administration demand release of Cuban prisoner

Vladimir Morera Bacallao: US urges Cuba to release ailing prisoner.
Vladimir Morera Bacallao: US urges Cuba to release ailing prisoner.

In a rare alliance of often-conflicting viewpoints on U.S.-Cuban relations, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart joined the State Department on Tuesday in calling for the immediate release of a Cuban political prisoner who is in intensive care following an 81-day hunger strike.

Vladimir Morera Bacallao was one of 53 dissidents released from prison in January under an accord the previous month between President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro. But he was detained again in April after displaying a sign suggesting that the national elections were a sham.

“The United States is deeply concerned about the deteriorating physical condition of Vladimir Morera Bacallao, who has been on a hunger strike since October to protest his imprisonment for peacefully expressing political dissent,” said Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman.

Toner, noting that Morera Bacallao has been hospitalized, reportedly in very serious condition, added: “The United States urgently calls on the Cuban government to release” the dissident.

The dispute was the most recent episode in a historic shift in relations between Havana and Washington over the last year.

In a deal brokered by Pope Francis, the United States and Cuba in July opened embassies in the two longtime adversaries’ capitals, three months after Obama and Castro became the first U.S. and Cuban leaders to meet in more than a half century.

As part of the movement toward normalized relations, the Obama administration has lightened restrictions on U.S. citizens’ travel to Cuba, although they must do so under a license from the U.S. Treasury Department.

The United States urgently calls on the Cuban government to release Mr. Morera Bacallao.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner

Despite the administration’s appeal for Morera Bacallao’s release, Diaz-Balart criticized both Obama and Castro for the dissident’s treatment by the Cuban government.

“Morera Bacallao has risked everything for the basic right to have a voice in his government,” the Miami Republican said. “His unjustifiable imprisonment and mistreatment are further indictments of the brutal malevolence of the Castro regime, and the utter failure of Obama’s appeasement of Cuba’s dictators.”

As part of a broader normalization of relations under a Dec. 17, 2014, agreement, the Cuban government released the last of 53 political prisoners last Jan. 11 from a list compiled by the United States.

“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,” Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said in January after all 53 had been freed.

During municipal elections in April, Morera Bacallao erected a sign that read: “I vote for my freedom and not in an election where I cannot choose my president.”

Two opposition members, Hildebrando Chaviano and Yuniel Lopez, were the first dissidents in decades to run in any election. Both lost their bids for local government seats.

Despite the changes, the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba remains in effect. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, saying the embargo costs the American economy $1.2 billion a year, backs Obama’s initiative to lift it.

All eight U.S.-Cuban members of Congress, among them four from Florida, oppose normalized relations between the countries while Castro, the brother of longtime leader Fidel Castro, remains in power.

Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, both seeking the Republican presidential nomination, are among the most ardent opponents of improved ties.

In addition to Rubio and Diaz-Balart, Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami and Carlos Curbelo of Kendall oppose normalized relations.

A Miami Herald poll published a year ago showed a distinct split in viewpoints between Cuban-Americans born in the United States and those who emigrated from Cuba.

A total of 64 percent of those born in the United States supported Obama’s initiative to normalize relations, compared with just 38 percent of those born in Cuba.