The status of 53 political prisoners in Cuba remains in limbo despite an agreement with the United States to release them, according to reports.
President Barack Obama announced last month that he was easing travel and commercial restrictions on Cuba to seek a rapprochement with the regime of Raul Castro. The president said his administration would continue to push for the protection of civil and political rights on the island, where Raul and his brother Fidel have imprisoned dissidents for a half-century.
However, at least some of the 53 Cuban political prisoners set to be freed as part of the U.S. deal remain in detention, and it is not clear when they will be released. Dissidents on the island told Reuters at the end of December that they have not been informed about who is on the list, and whether it includes common criminals in addition to political prisoners.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Monday that not all of the prisoners have been released yet, adding that the "the Cuban government decided to undertake this on their own and it would take place in stages."
"There's no reason to think they are walking back any part of the agreement," he said.
After questions from multiple reporters on Monday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to publicly confirm whether any of the political prisoners have been released.
"Our view was never that the changes would take place and be implemented in a matter of weeks," she said, adding that "it’s going to take a long time to change it."
Additionally, Psaki said the U.S. government does not plan to make public the list of imprisoned Cuban dissidents slated for release.
"We know who's on there," she said. "And the Cuban government knows who's on there."
The United States also released three convicted Cuban spies under the deal in exchange for a Cuban who spied for Washington and imprisoned U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross.
Cuba’s communist government continues to be one of the world’s worst human rights violators. According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, authorities arrested almost 5,000 political dissidents for short periods in the first half of 2014, a figure that has increased in recent years.
Cuban police detained at least four dissidents last week ahead of an unauthorized open microphone event, including the husband of prominent blogger and Castro critic Yoani Sanchez.
Another prominent political opponent, journalist Guillermo Fariñas, was arrested numerous times last year and subject to extremely cold temperatures, beatings, and other abuses, according to the Cuban human rights commission.
U.S. lawmakers from both parties have criticized the Obama administration for attempting to reach a détente with Cuba. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a staunch opponent of the Castros, said last month that the White House did not secure enough concessions from them before normalizing relations.
"It is a fallacy that Cuba will reform just because the American president believes that if he extends his hand in peace that the Castro brothers suddenly will unclench their fists," he said. "A majority of democratic activists on the island, including many that I have met with, have been explicit that they want the U.S. to become open to Cuba only when there is reciprocal movement by the Castro government. They understand that the Castros will not accede to change in any other way."