HAVANA – One year ago, the Cuban government began releasing 53 political prisoners that President Barack Obama wanted freed as part of a historic deal to re-establish diplomatic relations between the former Cold War foes.
Obama says he could make the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to post-revolutionary Cuba as early as this spring if he thinks human rights on the island are improving and a presidential trip will help. The fates of the released dissidents show just how hard it will be for the U.S. to push human rights in Cuba in the direction the Obama administration desires.
U.S. government information and an Associated Press assessment of the dissidents' lives 12 months after their release shows that at least 35 have asked for refugee status allowing them to move permanently to the U.S., reducing the ranks of an already weak and divided opposition movement. Many applications have been delayed by vetting of the dissidents' criminal records, some of which have little to do with political activity. Seven have either left Cuba for or are preparing to leave this month.
Among those who remain, at least six men are back in Cuban prison on what their allies say are politically related charges. Others have abandoned activism altogether.
A number of Cuban activists say the new U.S. policy of engagement focuses on diplomatic and economic ties instead of improving human rights. Others say easing tensions between the U.S. and Cuba will inevitably lead to better conditions on the island. International advocacy groups such as Amnesty International say that no matter what the United States does, it's up to Cuba to improve the island's human rights situation.
"The reforms that have to be made in terms of restrictions of liberty must come from the Cuban government, not from the government of the United States," said Marselha Goncalves Margerin, Amnesty International's advocacy director for the Americas.
Cuba's dissidents are viewed with skepticism by many ordinary Cubans who question their backing and motivation. The government historically has characterized them as U.S.-backed mercenaries and for decades has quashed any attempts to organize independent resistance to the single-party state founded by Fidel Castro and run by his brother, Raul.
Cuban officials did not respond to requests for comment on how the freed dissidents are faring.
In a statement Thursday night, the State Department said: "?We have publicly called for the release of political prisoners and others jailed for exercising their internationally recognized freedoms in Cuba, and will continue to do so." It added that the U.S. Embassy has been in contact with many of those freed last year.
Among those back behind bars is Wilberto Parada, who was arrested for public disorder in October when he protested in front of a prosecutor's office in Havana. Vladimir Morera, from the central province of Villa Clara, has been jailed since May on charges of assault. Fellow dissidents said he held a weekslong hunger strike that ended last month.
Another freed government opponent, Carlos Manuel Figueroa Alvarez, was charged with jumping the fence protecting the U.S. Embassy to claim refugee status after he said he was denied a refugee visa in September. Figueroa is now held on Cuban charges of violating a diplomatic site.
Angel Yunier Remon, a rapper from the eastern province of Granma, said he also was denied refugee status despite being named by the State Department several times as a victim of political repression before he was freed in January 2015.
"I'd never opted for refugee status, but government aggression made me feel like an enemy in my own land," Remon said by telephone.
Remon said the U.S. Embassy gave him a document that recognized him as worthy of refugee status, but said he was "non-admissible" to the United States. He said an embassy employee told him that was because of a robbery conviction he had before becoming a political activist.
U.S. officials says that most of the 53 political prisoners who have applied for refugee status are likely to receive it and that those who complain about delays may be misinterpreting normal processing times as problems with their applications. They remain eligible for refugee status, the officials said.
Several of the freed dissidents nonetheless complain they have waited for months to hear from U.S. consular officials, saying they are at risk of harassment while still in Cuba.
"I was very grateful for Obama's effort to free me in January, but now I'm upset about the wait," said Sandalio Mejias, who said he recently was notified of his second appointment, next month, to present documents supporting an a request for refugee status filed nearly a year ago.
About 20 of the freed dissidents have decided not to leave, some because they've abandoned political activism. But others want to stay and work to change the government.
"Our commitment is here," said Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, a group based in the country's east. "We do a lot to make our members aware of that, so that they don't leave."
Along with the freeing the dissidents last year, the U.S. has said it's trying to improve conditions for Cubans by increasing American trade and travel to the island and encouraging Havana to improve telecommunications and the flow of information to one of the world's least-connected countries.
American officials say Cuba's opening of at least 58 public Wi-Fi hotspots nationwide shows its new policy is working, even though Cuban officials don't describe the new Internet facilities as a result of detente.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials privately express concerns about a reverse in Cuba's policy of granting greater freedoms for its people in recent years. The government decided late last year to prevent thousands of medical specialists from leaving the country even for brief vacations without the Health Ministry's permission.
The move came after a flood of doctors began leaving Cuba last year as part of a broader exodus sparked by fears that better relations with the U.S. could end special Cold War migration privileges for Cubans.
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