U.S. officials: Cuba has freed all 53 prisoners as agreed upon in U.S. deal

Cuba Frees 53 Political Prisoners

(Reuters) - Cuba has released all 53 prisoners it had promised to free, senior U.S. officials said, a major step toward détente with Washington.

The release of the remaining prisoners sets a positive tone for historic talks next week aimed at normalizing relations after decades of hostility, the officials said.

They described the Cuban government's release over the weekend of the last detainees on the list as a milestone but said they would keep pressing Havana to free more people the United States considers political prisoners.

The officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, did not say how many prisoners were released over the weekend or identify them. But the White House will provide the names of all 53 to Congress and expects lawmakers to make them public, the officials added.

There had been questions over whether Havana would release all 53 prisoners as part of the deal Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced on Dec. 17 to restore diplomatic ties that Washington severed more than 50 years ago.

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U.S. officials: Cuba has freed all 53 prisoners as agreed upon in U.S. deal
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Alan Gross on the tarmac with his wife, Judy Gross, attorney Scott Gilbert, Sen. Jeff Flake, (R-AZ), Sen. Patrick Leahy, (D-VT) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, (D-MD) during his release December 17, 2014 at an airport near Havana, Cuba.. Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, over 50 years after they were severed in January 1961. In a prisoner exchange, U.S. contractor Alan Gross was freed after being held in Cuba since 2009 and sent to Cuba three Cuban spies who had imprisoned in the U.S. since 2001. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Alan Gross boards a government plane during his release December 17, 2014 at an airport near Havana, Cuba.. Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, over 50 years after they were severed in January 1961. In a prisoner exchange, U.S. contractor Alan Gross was freed after being held in Cuba since 2009 and sent to Cuba three Cuban spies who had imprisoned in the U.S. since 2001. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Alan Gross greets Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Az., Sen.and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. December 17, 2014 at an airport near Havana, Cuba.. Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, over 50 years after they were severed in January 1961. In a prisoner exchange, U.S. contractor Alan Gross was freed after being held in Cuba since 2009 and sent to Cuba three Cuban spies who had imprisoned in the U.S. since 2001. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Judy Gross greets her husband, Alan Gross, December 17, 2014 at an airport near Havana, Cuba.. Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, over 50 years after they were severed in January 1961. In a prisoner exchange, U.S. contractor Alan Gross was freed after being held in Cuba since 2009 and sent to Cuba three Cuban spies who had imprisoned in the U.S. since 2001. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: A Cuban man reads the Granma, a Cuban communist party paper, as he has his shoes shined, shortly after a live broadcast a speech by Cuban President Raul Castro about the re-establishment of official diplomatic relations with the U.S., on December 17, 2014, in Havana, Cuba. It was also announced that Alan Gross, an American contractor for USAID, who had been in prison in Cuba for the past five years on spy charges, had been released and could return to the U.S. The U.S. released three Cuban agents of the so-called group 'The Cuban Five', who have been in prison for 16 years, and returned to Cuba. (Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Cuban school kids watch a live broadcast of the speech by Cuban President Raul Castro about the re-establishment of official diplomatic relations with the U.S., with a poster of the 'The Cuban Five' hanging on the wall on December 17, 2014, in Havana, Cuba. It was also announced that Alan Gross, an American contractor for USAID, who had been in prison in Cuba for the past five years on spy charges, had been released and could return to the U.S. The U.S. released three Cuban agents of the so-called group 'The Cuban Five', who have been in prison for 16 years, and returned to Cuba. (Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Cubans applaud and cheer after a speech by Cuban President Raul Castro about the re-establishment of official diplomatic relations with the U.S., under a poster of the 'The Cuban Five' on December 17, 2014, in Havana, Cuba. It was also announced that Alan Gross, an American contractor for USAID, who had been in prison in Cuba for the past five years on spy charges, had been released and could return to the U.S. The U.S. released three Cuban agents of the so-called group 'The Cuban Five', who have been in prison for 16 years, and returned to Cuba. (Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Alan Gross greets Patrick Leahy, (D-VT) Sen. Jeff Flake, (R-AZ), Sen.and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, (D-MD) December 17, 2014 at an airport near Havana, Cuba.. Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, over 50 years after they were severed in January 1961. In a prisoner exchange, U.S. contractor Alan Gross was freed after being held in Cuba since 2009 and sent to Cuba three Cuban spies who had imprisoned in the U.S. since 2001. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Alan Gross chats with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. as the final paperwork gets signed by a Cuban official on his release December 17, 2014 at an airport near Havana, Cuba.. Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, over 50 years after they were severed in January 1961. In a prisoner exchange, U.S. contractor Alan Gross was freed after being held in Cuba since 2009 and sent to Cuba three Cuban spies who had imprisoned in the U.S. since 2001. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
HAVANA, CUBA - DECEMBER 17: Alan Gross on the tarmac with his wife, Judy Gross, attorney Scott Gilbert, Sen. Jeff Flake, (R-AZ), Sen. Patrick Leahy, (D-VT) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, (D-MD) during his release December 17, 2014 at an airport near Havana, Cuba.. Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, over 50 years after they were severed in January 1961. In a prisoner exchange, U.S. contractor Alan Gross was freed after being held in Cuba since 2009 and sent to Cuba three Cuban spies who had imprisoned in the U.S. since 2001. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom – & not 1 second sooner
Alan Gross should've never been jailed. Obama’s unilateral move is propaganda coup 4 #Castro regime, may violate law http://t.co/tB9z0w6Pd0
Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom – & not 1 second sooner
There is no ‘new course’ here, only another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship. http://t.co/cjuXvwFET8 #Cuba
If anything, this emboldens all state sponsors of terrorism: http://t.co/cjuXvwFET8 #Cuba
Happy for Alan Gross & family but dismayed Obama admin agreed to release Cuban spies. Legitimizes Castro regime's coercive tactics.
The President has done it again, bypassing Congress and making changes on his own, this time to Cuba policy. http://t.co/1nJHiM7LRm
“I am pleased #AlanGross will be reunited with this family after suffering years of unjust imprisonment” http://t.co/sQ9k5alj7s #Cuba
I will do all in my power to block the use of funds to open an embassy in Cuba. Normalizing relations with Cuba is bad idea at a bad time.
I welcome the return of Alan Gross to the United States and celebrate his release from imprisonment
Since 1961, nine different Republican and Democrat presidents have opposed normalizing relations with Cuba
President Obama’s announcement is further evidence that his foreign policy objective is appeasement
The president’s action rewards the Castro regime at the expense of the Cuban people, who are denied fair elections and free speech
My statement on #Cuba & #AlanGross: http://t.co/96XNrJe2se
Diaz-Balart on Release of Alan Gross and Concessions by President Obama http://t.co/6mUiJr3g3B
Alan Gross. Back on U.S. soil. http://t.co/Ut5jvdQGg2
Alan and Judy Gross. Together again. Just before leaving Cuba this morning. #alangross http://t.co/cdIlIkYfF3
Great moment for @JebBush to condemn Castro brothers and stand for liberty and democracy abroad.
The Admin's decision to release three Cuban spies and seek normalized relations with Cuba is a dangerous mistake http://t.co/3jDourKGv1
The U.S. embargo against Cuba has a decades-long history. President Obama can gut the embargo, but he'll need Congressional approval to get rid of it.
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Intense secrecy surrounding the 53, whose names have been withheld by both countries, had fueled skepticism over Cuba's intentions and played to critics who said Washington hasn't pressured Havana enough on human rights in exchange for normalizing ties and loosening economic and travel restrictions.

The U.S. exchanged three convicted Cuban spies for an agent who had spied for the U.S. government. The United States also received Alan Gross, a U.S. aid worker jailed in Cuba.

The Cuban government informed the Obama administration over the weekend that the last of those on the list of prisoners had been released, and the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which handles consular affairs and other contacts for Washington, confirmed it, the officials said.

The U.S. officials said they would pressure communist-ruled Cuba to release more prisoners.

"The fact of the matter is there are other individuals whose cases we have raised in the past," one of the officials said. "We have every expectation of going forward in the future. We're going to be wanting to raise the cases of different individuals who may be detained in Cuba for exercising their universal rights."

Cuba's government says there are no political prisoners on the island and typically describes dissidents as U.S.-paid mercenaries.

"WE'LL SEE IN THE NEXT FEW DAYS"

Leading Cuban dissidents said that as of Sunday they had not received word that the prisoner release was complete and only knew of up to 39 people freed since Dec. 17, including a popular hip-hop artist.

"We have heard nothing new today," said Elizardo Sanchez, president of the dissident Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which monitors detentions. "We'll see in the next few days if they complete the list."

Secrecy around the list has made it difficult for Sanchez and other dissidents to confirm a precise tally of those freed.

Speaking in detail on the prisoner release for the first time since last month's dramatic shift in Cuba policy, the U.S. officials said the idea grew out of secret talks on how to release Gross and how to structure the spy swap.

As progress was made and both sides began seeing prospects for a broader rapprochement between the old Cold War foes last year, U.S. negotiators sought proof of Cuba's readiness to improve its human rights record and last spring presented a list of prisoners they wanted to see released, the officials said.

The Cubans agreed to almost everyone on the list with the exception of a handful before the names were finalized. In July, they told Obama's aides that Havana was prepared to release 53 prisoners, the officials said.

A final meeting was held at the Vatican, where each side reviewed the different steps each side committed to take, including the Cuban prisoner release, the officials said, and then the broader deal was rolled out last month after 18 months of negotiations.

One U.S. official also said Obama could exercise executive powers "in a matter of days and weeks" to begin easing some business and travel restrictions.

The officials said the first of those changes could be announced around the time of the Jan. 21-22 talks in Havana, when U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson begins high-level negotiations on issues ranging from investments to immigration.

Reopening the U.S. embassy in Havana for the first time in 53 years will also be a "near-term" focus for the administration and an issue that Jacobson will discuss with the Cubans, but there is no timeline, one of the U.S. officials said.This official said the future of the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – long a sore point with the Havana government – was not "on the table" during last year's talks and that the United States has also made clear that it will continue its "democracy program" aimed at Cuba.

"You don't erase decades of mistrust overnight but you can chip away at it by taking steps to improve the relationship," the official said.

To make its list of prisoners to be released, the United States used information drawn from names of detainees provided by dissident activists in Cuba and human rights groups, and compiled names of what it considered to be core political prisoners who had been jailed for having peacefully exercised their rights of freedom of expression and assembly.

But it is unclear exactly how many dissidents are not on the list. Left out were the names of at least eight Cuban exile militants jailed on terrorism charges after they attempted to infiltrate Cuba with weapons, as well as 20 Cubans jailed on charges of attempting to hijack boats or planes. Also excluded, U.S. officials say, were several Cubans jailed on unspecified charges of crimes against the state, including a handful of people believed to have spied for the United States.

(Editing by Jason Szep and Frances Kerry)
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