White House

Cuba talks to go ahead despite slow release of dissidents, U.S. says

The United States will undertake migration talks with Cuba later this month even if the Cuban government has not released all of the 53 political prisoners it pledged it would when President Barack Obama announced plans to normalize relations with the island last month.

The White House acknowledged Tuesday that only some of the prisoners have been freed. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he couldn’t discuss specific numbers and that there was no specific time table for their release.

“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. The White House, he said, hopes to see all the prisoners released “in the near future.”

“The expectation right now is that they’ve already made this commitment and we expect them to live up to it,” Earnest said, adding that the Cuban government made the pledge not only to the United States but to the Vatican, which helped broker the talks that led to the pledge.

The issue of the 53 political prisoners has become a bitter one among some members of Congress who oppose the administration’s plans to resume diplomatic relations with Havana, which were broken more than 50 years ago. The administration has refused to make public the names of the dissidents to be released and has provided little information on their current status, including general description of their alleged political transgressions.

On Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called on Obama to cancel the upcoming talks on normalizing relations until the Cuban government releases the 53. In a letter to the president, Rubio complained that “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, a staunch opponent of Obama’s opening to Cuba, 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.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki made it clear, however, that there was no link in the administration’s plan between the fate of the 53 and the upcoming talks. The U.S. delegation is to be led by Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

“I would just say I would de-emphasize the link between the two,” Psaki said in response to a question. She then defended the administration’s approach, saying that “the step to release political prisoners is one we feel is important. . . . But having a dialogue, opening up access to be able to communicate, to organize, those are all steps we feel is important.”

Psaki said the migration talks, the date for which has not been settled, will present another opportunity to raise human rights issues with the Cuban government. “We plan on discussing human rights issues directly with the Cuban government at the migration and normalization talks,” Psaki said. “That will certainly be a topic. That continues to be a focus of our discussion.”

Psaki said the list of the 53 to be released had been compiled by the administration in a process overseen by two National Security Council officials who were involved in negotiations that led to Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement that relations would be normalized. She said she expected the administration to press for other releases.

“I would just like to emphasize this list is not to be seen as the end of our discussion on human rights with the government of Cuba,” she said, adding, “This is an ongoing process,” and noting 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,” she said.

Obama also insisted on Tuesday that he’ll continue to press the Cuban government on its human rights record, during an appearance with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in the Oval Office.

Peña Nieto called Obama’s decision to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba an “audacious” one and 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 he said he will insist that it include discussions about human rights, democracy and political freedom, including at the upcoming Summit of the Americas.