An air of secrecy surrounds the fate of 53 political prisoners whom Cuba agreed to free in its historic deal with the United States last month, as Washington and Havana’s refusal to publicly identify the dissidents is fueling suspicion over Cuba’s intentions.
Almost three weeks after the agreement, neither dissidents on the island nor leaders in the Cuban exile community know how many have been let out or whether any of the prisoners they are aware of are among those scheduled to be freed.
Both the White House and the State Department refuse to publicly name the prisoners included on a list U.S. negotiators provided their Cuban counterparts amid negotiations to normalize relations, although officials said a prisoner release was not a precondition for renewing diplomatic ties. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that not everyone on the list has been set free yet, but it was always understood that they would be released “in stages.”
“Well, we know who’s on there. And the Cuban government knows who’s on there,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, expressing doubts that the list would be made public.
The lack of transparency is contributing to a growing sense of concern that Havana will not follow through on its promises. Francisco Hernandez, president of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, cited the Cuban government’s track record of slipping in unwanted common criminals with legitimate political prisoners headed for refuge in other countries.
“With the tremendous propaganda victory the U.S. government has given Fidel Castro and the Cuban government by agreeing to establish diplomatic relations, the U.S. government should at least ensure the unconditional release of bona fide prisoners of conscience,” he said. “We have to insist this list be made public.”
The mystery surrounding the status of 53 political prisoners may vanish with a little more time. Nothing the United States agreed to do has happened yet, either. Changes involving trade, financial transactions and travel permissions still have not been posted in the Federal Register as required.
But the plight of the prisoners, as the faces of a diplomatic thaw, is particularly powerful. In Havana, their families are said to be despairing that they remain behind bars weeks after the deal was announced.
Human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez said he thinks the 53 prisoners are among a group of about 100 political prisoners being tracked by his organization, the tolerated but unsanctioned Cuban Human Rights Commission. He said their relatives mistakenly anticipated they would be released near Christmas.
“It seems to be a cruel position to not have released them” over the holidays, he said.
A few prisoners have been released. A senior administration official said there are not many, but “more” than the three or four cited by dissident and exile groups. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to go beyond public administration statements, said that the Cuban government had stated it would release the 53 people on the U.S. list “over time,” but that Washington’s patience is not unlimited.
“This certainly wasn’t something that was envisioned as months and months,” the official said.
The number of political prisoners in Cuba, while thought to be far lower than in past decades, has always been a subject of dispute, even among dissidents. Many of those on the U.S. list are longtime prisoners, as opposed to those who have been picked up and detained relatively briefly in an attempt to intimidate them.
At the same time, the official said, not everyone agrees on who is a political prisoner in Cuba, where political charges sometimes overlap with criminal ones. “Our criteria, in the cases we raised, are ones that you would include as those who have exercised internationally protected freedoms” of political or social activity, the official added.
The official emphasized that the deal between the governments involved only the swapping of Cuban spies for U.S. aid worker Alan Gross, and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. The other elements announced Dec. 17 — including expanded trade and travel by the Americans, and Internet expansion and prisoner release by the Cubans — were separate actions decided separately by each government.
“The analysis here is that it’s important for them to be able to do this on their own, not with us extracting a concession, but to show that there’s going to be a change in their policy,” the official said.
It can be particularly difficult to identify from afar political prisoners in Cuban jails because many people are imprisoned for short periods, making lists quickly outdated.
“Despite the courageous efforts by local rights groups to document these cases, it is very difficult to know for certain the total number and identities of all the political prisoners currently in Cuban jails given the extreme arbitrariness and lack of transparency of the system,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division.
Some in the Cuban exile community said the Obama administration might not be releasing the names of the 53 prisoners because it could box Havana into a corner and make the government more reluctant to free them.
Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, said their release is one of the most significant successes of the agreement.
“It’s the one that has greatest direct impact on living souls and their families,” he said. “While Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz lash out that what the president is doing is hurting the Cuban people and human rights, here you have something that should be celebrated. This is why it’s important that the names eventually be revealed, so that we can put a face to this effort.”
Missy Ryan contributed to this report.