HAVANA – One year ago, the Cuban government began releasing 53 political prisoners whom President Barack Obama wanted freed as part of a historic deal to re-establish diplomatic relations between the former Cold War foes.
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 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.
About 20 of the freed dissidents have decided not to leave, some because they've abandoned political activism. But others say they 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."
Many Cuban exiles view the country's dissidents as brave freedom fighters against the single-party state founded by Fidel Castro and run by his brother, Raul. Exiles support some political activists here with money and lobbying of politicians and the press in the U.S. and other countries.
The Cuban government historically has characterized internal dissidents as unpatriotic mercenaries acting on behalf of the U.S. government and violent exile groups who want to retake control of Cuba.
Whatever the reason, many ordinary Cubans today question the dissidents' credentials, saying they suspect the activists are motivated mostly by money from abroad and the chance of visa to the U.S. or Europe.
Obama's new policy moves away from a decades-long U.S. focus on the dissidents and toward a broader diplomatic and economic engagement with the Cuban government. He argues that will bring better conditions for the Cuban people in the long run, and says he may travel to Cuba as early as this spring if he feels the rights situation here is improving and a presidential trip will help.
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.
International advocacy groups such as Amnesty International say that regardless of U.S. policy, 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.
Cuban officials did not respond to requests for comment on how the freed dissidents are faring.
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.
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