HAVANA – Newly freed dissidents have high hopes that detente with the U.S. will help their push to bring changes for their country, despite skepticism about Cuba's government and worry about the legal cases still hanging over many of them.
Angel Yunier Remon Arzuaga, an amateur rapper known as "The Critic," was arrested in 2013 after, he said, state security agents painted his house in eastern Cuba with pro-government slogans, leading to a fight with police. He was sentenced to six years for attacking state security.
Held five miles from his home, he was loaded into a car Thursday and driven outside the prison, where he was released as part of Cuba's agreement last month moving to normalize relations with the U.S.
"It's a hard blow against the regime when they themselves have to let out people when they supposedly had proof that they'd committed crimes," Remon said. "It gives me the strength to keep demanding our rights and freedoms."
Some members of the Cuban opposition have criticized the deal, saying Washington didn't win enough concessions — an argument echoed by critics of Cuba's government outside the country, such as U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, who called the deal "one-sided and misguided" on Tuesday.
"Will these 53 political prisoners be able to peacefully work in their country for freedom and human rights — or will they be thrown into Castro's gulags once again?" Menendez said on the Senate floor.
Eight of 10 freed dissidents interviewed by The Associated Press since their release expressed confidence the decrease in tensions with the U.S. will improve life in Cuba and make their activism easier. Only one had a negative view of the deal.
Cuba has long described domestic dissenters as agents backed by the U.S. and by expatriate critics of leaders Fidel and Raul Castro.
Remon called the U.S.-Cuba deal "a historic moment, an overwhelming event for my country, and I feel very proud."
Despite the end of their jail time, the cases against many of the dissidents have not been overturned, meaning they will not be able to leave Cuba until their sentences run out. Some said the pending cases would make them more cautious. Others said they would not be affected.
Miguel Alberto Ulloa, a 25-year-old Havana man arrested in 2013 for painting anti-government slogans, said that he will stay at home until the charges against him expire in two months but that he's "eager to go to the street, speak out, show that I'm dissatisfied."
He said he had watched Raul Castro and President Barack Obama's simultaneous announcements from prison on Dec. 17 and of the 100 or so prisoners of all types watching with him, "some were happy and others not."
"Some thought it was a lie and nothing is really going to happen," Ulloa said, but he added that he is optimistic it will bring change to Cuba.
"I think that the Cuban people really need something like what was announced," he said. "Now I have to keep fighting and find the path so that they don't jail me again. I'm not going to stop."
One of the released dissidents wasn't optimistic. Sonia Garro, a recently freed member of the Ladies in White, Cuba's best known dissident group, said she was highly skeptical that detente would improve anything in Cuba, although she intends to continue her activism.
"I think this deal will give more power to those ruling Cuba, I don't have any hope that anything will change, much less get better," she said. "I am going to keep fighting as I have been for human rights to be respected in Cuba."
Reinier Mulet, a 28-year-old Havana man, said he took to the streets to paint slogans alongside Ulloa and was sentenced to three years in prison. He said the charges against him would remain in force for a year and authorities had warned him not to associate with "anti-social elements," although they said nothing about further activism.
"I'm not afraid. I'm going to carry out the same activism as Miguel Alberto. I'm thinking of holding meetings and making videos to tell Cubans about their rights."
Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein in Havana contributed to this report.
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