Obama says he’ll press Cuba on human rights

The U.S. will enter into talks with Cuba even if it hasn’t released all of the 53 political prisoners it pledged it would when President Barack Obama announced plans to normalize relations with the island.

The White House said Tuesday that Cuba has released “some” of the prisoners, but White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he couldn’t discuss specific numbers.

“We've been careful about talking about the number of prisoners and who they are because we don't want to put an even bigger target on their back as political dissidents,” Earnest said, noting that the White House hopes to see all the prisoners released “in the near future.”

He said the Cuban government made the pledge not only to the U.S., but to the Vatican, which played a role in brokering talks between the U.S. and Cuba after more than 50 years of icy relations.

“The expectation right now is that they've already made this commitment and we expect them to live up to it,” Earnest said.

The remarks came as members of Congress pressed the administration to scrap upcoming talks until Havana delivers on its promise to release political prisoners, but the State Department plans to hold talks with Cuba this month to begin hammering out details of opening a new embassy even if all the prisoners are not released, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

“We're looking to get them released, and this is the process that we think will be most effective in getting that done,” said Psaki, who said she expected to soon announce a date for the talks.

She said the U.S. believes with a new policy of engagement it will have an opportunity to talk with Cuba.

“This is an ongoing process,” she said, adding that the administration “didn't expect it would be overnight. They've committed to do this, and we'll continue to have a discussion about it.”

Some dissidents have suggested that some of the prisoners on the list had previously been released, but Psaki said the U.S. put the list together with the goal of releasing additional political prisoners.

“It wasn't to check a box or just be able to say we took part in a release when they were already released,” she said.

Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, is expected to lead the talks with Cuban officials later this month in Havana.

Obama insisted Tuesday that he’ll continue to press the Cuban government on its human rights record as he secured support from of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who, meeting with Obama in the Oval Office, called the decision to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba an “audacious” one.

He said Mexico hopes to collaborate with both countries in the effort.

“Mexico will be a tireless supporter of the good relationship between two neighbors,” Pena Nieto said.

The U.S. snub of Cuba has been a sticking point with a number of governments, including Mexico, which has long maintained ties with Cuba. Peña Nieto late last year agreed to forgive 70 percent of Cuba’s nearly $500 million foreign debt to his country, months after an official visit to the island where he met with semi-retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro and praised him as “Cuba’s political and moral leader.”

Obama said he hopes for a “more constructive policy” with Cuba, but said he will “insist” that it include discussions about human rights, democracy and political freedom, including at the upcoming Summit of the Americas.

His remarks came as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called on Obama to cancel upcoming talks on normalizing relations until the Cuban government releases 53 prisoners whom Cuban leader Raul Castro had said would be released when Obama announced the change in Cuba policy three weeks ago.

“To date, no information has been provided about the political prisoners to be released – regarding their identities, conditions or whereabouts, even on a confidential basis, to members of Congress,” Rubio wrote to Obama.

Rubio, who has opposed Obama’s policy changes, called on the administration to hold the regime accountable for freeing the 53, along with others who have been detained in recent weeks.

“A failure to do so will further embolden the regime to continue its oppression,” Rubio said.