Staffers at the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba have been calling the relatives of dozens of long-term Cuban political prisoners non-stop in recent days to see if anyone has been freed as part of Raúl Castro's offer to release 53 political prisoners.
Other than three dissidents released days prior to the historic Dec. 17 announcement that Cuba and the United States would be renewing diplomatic relations after 53 years of isolation, the answer is always the same, said Francisco “Pepe’’ Hernández, director of the organization and also president of the Cuban American National Foundation.
“Everybody says no, they haven’t heard anything,” said Hernández. Human rights activists in Cuba say they also haven’t received news of any prisoner movements — often a sign that dissidents are about to be released.
Not only is there scant news on any releases but it's also not clear who is on the list of 53 prisoners to be released.
The State Department said Washington came up with a list of people who had been jailed for political activities on the island that it wanted Cuba to free — but the prisoner release wasn’t part of the deal brokered with Cuba to restore diplomatic ties and secure the release of three Cuban spies jailed in the United States and USAID subcontractor Alan Gross and a CIA operative who were serving long prison terms in Cuba.
Castro, however, included the prisoner release offer in his Dec. 17 speech announcing the historic changes.
“This is a commitment that [the Cubans] made not just to the United States but to the Vatican as well,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a Tuesday press briefing.
“We will continue, of course, to urge the Cuban government to follow through on its commitment,” Psaki said. “They have already released some of the prisoners. We’d like to see this completed in the near future.”
Hernández said the only dissidents he is aware of that have been released are Sonia Garro Alfonso, a member of the Ladies in White dissident group; her husband Ramón Alejandro Muñoz González and their neighbor Eugenio Hernández.
During a briefing call from the White House a day prior to the announcement, Pepe Hernández said the foundation was told that those three releases would count toward the 53 prisoners to be freed.
The couple and their neighbor were jailed on March 8, 2012 and their trial had been postponed four times before they were finally released on Dec. 9. They were accused of public disorder and attempted murder and Garro faced an additional assault charge.
The charges against them stemmed from a demonstration staged by a pro-government mob at the couple’s home to prevent them from taking part in a dissident event. During the melee, Cuba’s public prosecutor said the two men threw objects, including a television, from the roof of the Garro-Muñoz home at two state security agents.
The Foundation for Human Rights has its own list of 57 Cuban political prisoners that it supports. It sends their relatives money, medicine and other humanitarian aid, said Hernández.
“There was an indication from the White House that at least some of our names would be on the list,” Hernández said. “We hope all those on our list are under consideration.”
Psaki said she doesn’t expect the U.S. will be making the names public. “We’re not looking to put a bigger target on Cuban political dissidents. We’re looking to get them released, and this is the process that we think will be most effective in getting that done,” she said.
She also said she expected the prisoner release and human rights to be among the topics when Cuba and U.S. officials meet in Havana later this month to discuss migration and the process for normalizing diplomatic relations.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Tuesday urging him to cancel the trip by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson “at least until all 53 political prisoners, plus those arrested since your December 17th announcement have been released and are no longer subjected to repression that often takes the form of house arrests, aggressive surveillance, denied Internet access, forced exile and other forms of harassment.
“Almost three weeks after your Cuba announcement, there is absolutely no reason why any of these individuals should be in prison or the targets of repression — or for their identities, conditions and whereabouts to remain such closely held secrets,” Rubio wrote.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest emphasized that the Cuban government decided to undertake the prisoner release on its own “in the context of these discussions” to normalize relations.
“What I would say at this point, there’s no reason to think that they are walking back on any part of the agreement,” he said.
“Not everyone is going to be released at once,” said Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuban Study Group, which supports peaceful change in Cuba. He noted that the Group of 75 dissidents who were imprisoned during the Black Spring crackdown in 2003 weren’t all released simultaneously either.
As part of that deal, Cuba wanted them and their families to accept exile in Spain, but about a dozen refused to leave the island and were allowed to stay.