There are more Cuban political prisoners today than on the day President Obama announced his deal with the Castro brothers, December 17.
Part of that deal was supposed to see 53 Cuban political prisoners released, but now it’s three weeks later and they have not been released. Nor have they even been identified. As the Washington Post put it in a headline, “Mystery surrounds 53 Cuban political prisoners supposed to be set free.” Instead of releasing them, the Cuban regime has in fact arrested more dissidents, two weeks after the Obama speech and just before New Year’s.
How are we to know if the regime is ever going to meet its commitment to the Obama White House? How can we track the liberation of these prisoners?
We can’t. Nor will Cuban refusal to release them slow down the Obama policy. The next step is for our Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs to visit Cuba, and she is going even if they refuse to release anyone. Read this incredible exchange between reporters and the State Department spokesman on Monday:
QUESTION: Under the Administration’s deal to normalize relations with the Castro regime, 53 Cuban political prisoners are set to be released. Do we know who they are and where they are now?
MS. PSAKI: Well, when the announcement was made in December, of course, the United States shared the names of individuals jailed in Cuba on charges related to their political activities. We’re not going to outline who those individuals were. We shared them with the Cuban Government. Obviously, it’s a topic that we will remain engaged with them with, but I don’t expect we’ll be releasing a public list.
QUESTION: There’s a prominent dissident group in Cuba, the Ladies in White; they’ve been protesting the new policy. And they say the list is so secretive that no one knows who’s on there. Is there a lack of transparency?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we know who’s on there, and the Cuban Government knows who’s on there, and we’ve given a specific number. Obviously, there are a range of steps that both sides will need to continue to work together to take over the coming weeks. One of the reasons why we felt so strongly about changing our policy is that this – the old policy was not just broken on the economic front, but it was making it impossible for civil society and people to operate and kind of live and communicate in Cuba. So there’s a range of benefits, not just the release of the prisoners, which, obviously, we see as something that’s positive and we’ll continue to discuss and press; but there are other steps that will help, I think, groups like you mentioned, and we think it will take some time but over the coming months.
QUESTION: Jen, are you saying that you don’t – you cannot confirm if Cuba has actually released a single one of these 53?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything to confirm for you publicly, no.
QUESTION: Well, hold on. Hold on a second. Can we – I mean, is it – what’s happening? Are they out? Are they not out? Have some of them gotten out and others are – we’re not asking for – I’m not asking for names. It would be nice to have them, but where are they?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any more updates to provide for you, Matt.
QUESTION: So you don’t know or you cannot tell us if --
MS. PSAKI: It’s not that I don’t know; I don’t have any updates to provide for you.
QUESTION: I don’t – okay.
QUESTION: So you do know.
QUESTION: So you know that they have not been released. Is that what you’re saying?
MS. PSAKI: That’s not what I’m saying. I will see if there’s more – anything more publicly we can share.
QUESTION: It would seem to me that if you come out and announce that the Cubans have agreed to free 53, then you should be able to say whether or not you know that the 53 have actually been released or not. That would seem --
MS. PSAKI: It’s always easier for me when we can provide more details publicly, as you know, but I will see if there’s more we can provide.
QUESTION: Right. Do you know if there has been a date yet set for the migration/beginning of normalization talks that Assistant Secretary Jacobson is going to go to Havana for?
MS. PSAKI: Well, they’re likely to happen later this month. I think we’re still working on finalizing the dates. Hopefully, we’ll have that in the coming days.
QUESTION: And the recent arrests and then releases and re-arrests of dissidents, despite the promise to free 53 political prisoners, won’t have any effect on the timing of that or on the entire idea of normalization, or will it?
MS. PSAKI: Well, obviously, I mean, as I mentioned, I mean, one of the reasons why we moved forward with the change in policy is because we want to empower Cuban citizens to give them greater ability to promote positive change going forward. And a critical focus of our announced actions include continued strong focus on improved human rights conditions, of which we know that the situation in Cuba remains poor. There are limits on fundamental freedoms. There are – including freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. This will certainly be part of our ongoing dialogue.
QUESTION: Right. But --
MS. PSAKI: But no, it hasn’t impacted the timing of the next round of discussions, no.
QUESTION: Well, the problem that I’m having with this, though, is that you say that the last 50 years of policy has been broken because it didn’t do anything. But then you announce that it’s changed, and within a week or two weeks of the announcement that you’re going to change your – fundamentally change, alter the relationship that you’ve had with Cuba, not only can you not confirm that the 53 people that they said they would – the political prisoners – said that they would release, you can’t confirm that they have been released; but one of the very first things the Cubans do afterwards is continue to arrest dissidents. So if the policy was broken for 50 years, the change in policy doesn’t seem to have fixed it.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, our view was never that the changes would take place and be implemented with a matter – in a matter of weeks. This has, as you noted, been decades of a broken policy.
QUESTION: Yeah. But --
MS. PSAKI: It’s going to take a long time to change it.
QUESTION: Okay, all right. So is the release of the 53 confirmable publicly from you a prerequisite for Assistant Secretary Jacobson going down there and having these talks to start normalization?
MS. PSAKI: A prerequisite? No, this is a --
QUESTION: So the Cubans don’t have to actually --
MS. PSAKI: These are --
QUESTION: -- do anything?
MS. PSAKI: Matt, no. This is something they have agreed to. I would point you to them for any updates on the number of people or if people have been released. There are migration talks that have been scheduled for some time. Obviously, this is a different, a unique – or not unique, but a different set of circumstances given the announcements in December.
QUESTION: Well, I’m sure that these prisoners would like to migrate out of their jail cells, right? So is that not – the Cubans don’t actually have to follow through on their promise to release the 53 in order for the --
MS. PSAKI: That’s part of what was agreed to, Matt. I don’t have any other announcements on that front to make.
So it appears the United States is bound by this agreement to send the Assistant Secretary to Cuba, but the regime is not bound by its promise to release the prisoners. This is remarkable.
Perhaps this is just shoddy negotiating by the White House, and it has served the president and the United States poorly—and the human rights of the Cuban people even worse.
But one cannot escape the conclusion that the White House was so desperate to reach a deal that it demanded close to nothing, got even less than it demanded and less than it thought it had received--and doesn’t care. So the administration announced that 53 prisoners would be released, and is mostly indifferent to the regime’s failure to release them.
What should the president do? Simple: tell the Cubans to let those people out, now, or he will denounce them and rescind the changes he has announced. But of course that would turn Mr. Obama’s huge “achievement” into an obvious diplomatic disaster, and he will not do it. Better to avoid this embarrassment than to try and force the regime to keep its promises and get those people out of prison.
The deal with Cuba looked weak and lacking in a genuine moral basis when it was announced. Today it looks worse. One cannot read that exchange above without cringing.