Dissidents in Cuba ‘kept in dark’ over US deal

Cuba’s most prominent dissidents say they have been kept in the dark by United States officials over a list of 53 political prisoners who will be released from jail as part of a deal to end decades of hostility between the US and their country.

Havana shop displays pictures of Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara. Picture: Reuters
Havana shop displays pictures of Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara. Picture: Reuters
Havana shop displays pictures of Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara. Picture: Reuters

For years, dissident leaders have told the US which opponents of Cuba’s communist government were being jailed or harassed, but they said they were not consulted when the list of prisoners to be freed was drawn up and have not been told who is on it.

The lack of information has prompted concern and frustration among the dissidents, who worry that the secret list is flawed and that genuine political prisoners who should be on it will be left in jail.

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“We’re concerned because we don’t agree with the silence, because we have a right to know who they are. Who are they?” said Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White dissident group, which marches in Havana on Sundays to demand the release of prisoners.

“There are not just 53 political prisoners. There are more, and we are concerned that the US list might have common criminals on it,” she added.

American officials have so far been tight-lipped about how the list of 53 was assembled and who was consulted inside Cuba. It also is not clear if some prisoners were kept off the list because the Cuban government refused to release them.

A US official said Washington had asked Cuba to release a specific group of people jailed on charges related to their ­political activities, but declined to answer further questions.

Neither the US nor the Cuban governments have said when the prisoners would be released. Cuba declined to comment on why more details have not been publicly released.

The dissident Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which keeps track of activists in different opposition groups, counted 114 political prisoners in June. This includes 12 who are on parole after being released from jail, plus several others who have since been released.

The group’s leader, Elizondo Sanchez, said at least 80 peaceful dissidents are on that list, including some whose only crime was to demonstrate or write anti-government graffiti.

Others include soldiers who deserted with their weapons, former government officials, people who tried to hijack an airplane to the US and eight militants jailed for entering Cuba from the US and trying to start insurrections.

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US president Barack Obama announced a new era in US-Cuba relations on 17 December, saying the countries would ­restore diplomatic ties broken more than five decades ago and he would begin to unravel economic sanctions that were aimed at forcing the communists from power.

US officials said Cuba agreed to release 53 people Washington considered to be political prisoners.

Dissidents said so far none of the 53 have been named and 
no-one has been freed.

Five of the most influential dissident leaders in Cuba said US officials have been in contact with them but have given no information about the prisoners.

José Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) dissident group, said he has been in contact with concerned relatives and that some inmates have called from prison to see if they are likely to be released. The wife of one prisoner phoned him late on Friday.

“She asked me if I thought her husband would be among those to be freed, and I told her the same thing I told other families: We don’t have any certainty and no clues to reach a conclusion about who they are,” Mr Ferrer said.

UNPACU describes 42 of its activists as political prisoners.

Cuba says it has no political prisoners but, announcing the deal with the United States, president Raul Castro said his government would be releasing some inmates who were of ­interest to the US.