WASHINGTON – The status of 53 Cuban political prisoners who were supposed to be freed as part of the historic deal thawing U.S.-Cuba relations remains a mystery nearly three weeks after the announcement, prompting criticism from rights groups and lawmakers that the Castro regime is stringing along the White House.
“We are very concerned,” Francisco Hernandez, co-founder and president of the Cuban American National Foundation, told FoxNews.com. “The problem with the agreement [between Cuba and the U.S.] is that there is no agreement. There are no guarantees. This has been a tremendous victory for the Cuban government.”
The State Department on Tuesday claimed some of the prisoners have been released, without identifying them.
Hernandez’s Miami-based organization has contacted the White House and pressed officials to publicly identify the dissidents scheduled for release. He hasn’t had much luck and says the push for transparency has been widely ignored and in turn is fueling suspicion over Cuba’s intentions. He and others question whether the Cubans supposedly set for release are even political prisoners.
“We wonder why there has not been any indication – especially on the part of the White House – who is on the list,” Hernandez said. “We want to confirm that those on the list are political prisoners and not common criminals, but we have not been able to.”
In a Jan. 6 letter to President Obama, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., demanded more clarity on the identities of the 53 Cuban political prisoners, writing “the least your administration can do now is hold the regime accountable for fully freeing these 53 political prisoners as well as those who have been detained in recent weeks.”
During a televised address on Dec. 17, Obama said Havana would free the 53 prisoners as part of a deal that included the release of three convicted Cuban spies serving lengthy sentences in the United States. The Cuban government also released 65-year-old American Alan Gross – a move that reportedly cleared the way for a new chapter in the U.S.-Cuba relationship.
“Neither the American nor Cuban people are served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born,” Obama said at the time. “I believe we can do more to support the Cuban people and our values through engagement. After all, these 50 years have shown the isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach.”
But since making the announcement, the U.S. government has shied away from providing details on the status of the prisoners, their names or where they may have been taken.
“I’m surprised by the naiveté and the lack of professionalism by the [Obama] administration,” Jamie Suchlicki, director at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, at the University of Miami, told FoxNews.com. “They should have had a list, and the prisoners should have been released simultaneously. Here’s mine and here’s yours.”
The White House and State Department have not disclosed the names of the prisoners, but have urged patience. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that the release “would take place in stages” and that "not all of them have been released at this point."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki clarified Tuesday that Cuba has released "some of the prisoners," and said the U.S. wants the process completed "in the near future."
She said the administration has been "careful" about discussing the details "because we're not looking to put a bigger target on Cuban political dissidents. We're looking to get them released, and this is the process that we think will be most effective."
A day earlier, Psaki signaled the names on the list may never be made public. “Well, we know who’s on there,” Psaki said Monday. “And the Cuban government knows who’s on there.”
Rubio, a Cuban-American lawmaker, complained in his letter to Obama, which his office shared with FoxNews.com, about the administration's handling of the matter.
“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,” he wrote. “Just yesterday, your own State Department was unable to provide an explanation about the political prisoners in question.”
The vague answers from the Obama administration have many in the Cuban community, like Hernandez, on edge. He believes Cuba will renege on its promise or alter the terms, and potentially release common criminals rather than legitimate political prisoners Cuba has behind bars.
The mutual distrust between the two nations isn’t new. Cuba and the United States have been at ideological odds since the 1959 Cuban revolution that brought current president Raul Castro’s older brother, Fidel Castro, to power. Though the U.S. embargo has been in place for decades, Obama urged Congress last month to consider lifting it.
According to a recently released report from the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there were 8,899 short-term detentions of dissidents and activists in 2014 – about 2,000 more than in 2013 and four times as many as in 2010, Elizardo Sanchez, the group’s founder, said.
The report also said many dissidents still in Cuba did not know who was on the list of 53.
When announcing the December deal, Raul Castro said Cuba was releasing prisoners who were of interest to America. He did not say who those prisoners would be. Eight days before he made those comments, three dissidents were freed from prison. One told Reuters they had been in jail for three years on charges of murder and public disorder.