To many exiles and their allies, President Raul Castro is a brutal dictator who locks up dissenters in gulag-like jails, snuffs out political discourse and condemns his people to socialist poverty.

Cuba's supporters see the government as heroic, its sins justified by the behavior of its giant enemy to the north, and offset by the fact it provides health care and education that most developing countries could only dream of.

As often is the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.

President Barack Obama said on Friday that he began his historic call with Castro earlier in the week by delivering a 15-minute lecture on human rights and political freedom, adding: "This is still a regime that oppresses its people."

Even so, he said that US policy had failed to change Cuba for more than a half century and it was time to try something new.

Human rights activists welcomed the overhaul of US-Cuba relations, but added that the Communist government has much to answer for, including a denial of freedom of speech, the banning of independent labor unions and a lack of fair and competitive elections.

"I believe that President Obama is making the right decision, but that does not mean that our serious human rights concerns with regard to Cuba have gone away," Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director for the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press. He said the abuses were "part of state policy, systematic and widespread."

Castro has defended the single-party political system, saying open elections would be tantamount to "legalizing the party or parties of imperialism on our soil."

Accusations of human rights abuses have dogged the Cuban government since the beginning, starting with summary trials and executions after the 1959 revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista, whose regime committed its own abuses, including torture, executions and persecution of the press.

In the years that followed, priests, gay people and others considered socially dangerous were sent to labor camps in the countryside, and political opponents were jailed or forced into exile.

The panorama has undoubtedly shifted in recent years, particularly since Fidel Castro handed power to his brother in 2006.

In 2010, Raul Castro negotiated a deal with the Roman Catholic Church and Spain to free the last of 75 political dissidents who had been rounded up in 2003 and sentenced to long jail terms, and he has allowed more church freedom on the island, building on the opening worked out between Fidel and Pope John Paul II.

Amnesty International counts five Cuban inmates as "prisoners of conscience," down sharply from years past, though Marselha Goncalves Margerin, the group's advocacy director for the Americas, said Amnesty has campaigned for others that don't meet its strict definition.

"Cuba has always used the excuse of the U.S. embargo and restrictions to crack down on dissidents," she said. "Once this is removed, we do hope this will generate human rights changes."

As part of this week's deal with the United States, Castro agreed to free 53 people the White House describes as dissidents, though their identities have not been released. It was not clear if any of those on Amnesty's list were among them.

Elizardo Sanchez, one of the only independent human rights activists tolerated on the island, said he has been getting calls from inmates asking him if he has a list and whether they're on it, but he's had to say he doesn't know. There's been no evidence of any mass release, he said.

Sanchez also welcomed the restoration of diplomatic ties with the United States, despite what he described as a sharp increase in acts of harassment and intimidation.

While the government has moved away from sentencing dissidents to long jail terms, he said that short-term detentions have spiked under Raul Castro, from 2,074 in 2010 to 8,410 through the first 11 months of this year. Cuban authorities dismiss his findings as a fiction, and consider the dissidents to be paid stooges of Washington.

While the Castro government has not budged on the issue of a one-party state, Vivanco says that Cuba's rights problems aren't in the same league as a country such as North Korea, and says there has been movement on some key issues such as freedom of travel that was tightly controlled under Fidel Castro.

Prominent dissidents such as the blogger Yoani Sanchez have been allowed to travel under the reforms, using their trips to speak out against government policy.

The younger Castro has opened the island to some private enterprise, and allowed Cubans to own cellphones and computers. Rights for the LGBT community have also advanced under Raul Castro, whose daughter is the island's most prominent advocate for gay rights. The government's free universal health care system now pays for gender reassignment surgery, and gay pride parades are an annual fixture.

Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Center at Florida International University, acknowledged progress on some issues like freedom of religion, but added that Raul Castro largely shared the attitudes of his brother.

"Since Raul took over, repressive strategies have become more subtle, not necessarily less brutal," he said.

Elizardo Sanchez warned against believing that an improving relationship between Washington and Havana would change much on the human rights front.

"I don't think there's a cause-and-effect relationship between the normalization of relations between the countries and the necessary implementation of reforms by the Cuban government," he said.

Obama concurred, saying he did not expect improvements overnight.