US says open to receiving imprisoned protestors and dissidents

20th March 2023

Speculation is growing in the US that some imprisoned Cuban protestors and dissidents may soon be released, possibly into exile, leading to an easing in relations with the US.

Reports from well-placed US NGOs and in mainstream media outlets including CNN, suggest that negotiations to this end continue. They cite the recent visit to Havana by the Papal Envoy, Cardinal Benjamin Stella, the comments he made following a meeting with President Diaz-Canel (Cuba Briefing 13 February 2023), the actions of European diplomats in Havana, and a recent speech made by the US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Brian Nichols.

Speaking on 14 March at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami, Assistant Secretary Nichols indicated that the Biden Administration is open to the possibility of accepting Cubans currently imprisoned in Cuba.

Although saying nothing about the negotiations fostered by the Vatican, he noted that US officials continue to seek the release of political prisoners both publicly and privately in exchanges with Cuban officials. “If they want to come to the United States, we will explore the avenues available under US law to welcome them,” Nichols said, noting the large numbers of individuals imprisoned for their involvement in the 11/12 July 2021 street protests, and the contact the US Embassy in Havana has had with them and with  dissidents.

Separately, European diplomats in Havana indicate that they are preparing to issue humanitarian visas to any Cubans who may be released by the government and leave the island for exile abroad. Civil society organizations suggests that following the protest some 670 individuals were sentenced and over 1,500 detained. Cuba says the number involved is about 800, however the trials have remained closed, and in some cases very long sentences have been imposed.

The position of the Cuban government however remains unclear with the Minister of Justice, Oscar Silvera, reportedly having suggested to EU diplomats earlier this year that while amnesty is not legally possible in Cuba their request for pardons had been noted. Meanwhile, speculation continues as to whether any decision would be linked to exile, whether encouraged or forced, for those who might be freed.

In his remarks Nichols made clear that the US strongly opposes forced exile.  “The United States will not turn its back on political prisoners, and if they want to come to the United States, we will explore the avenues available under US law to welcome them,” he told those attending his address.

In remarks largely aimed at explaining Washington’s Cuba policy to the Cuban-American community, Nichols said that in its dialogue with Cuba, “we always emphasise that the Cuban people must be able to choose where to live and the government must allow its citizens to return to Cuba.”

In February, Benjamin Ziff, Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, stated that Cuba’s government’s imprisonment of protesters and dissidents “is the most serious obstacle to any improvement in the bilateral relationship” (Cuba Briefing 13 February 2023).

More generally in his address, Nichols sought to outline two key aspects of the present US Administration’s policy.  The first, he said, is to “promote accountability for human rights abuses,” and the second is to “explore meaningful ways to support the Cuban people while limiting benefits to the Cuban regime.”

Speaking about new policies he said that the Biden Administration was “exploring the expansion of access to services hosted in the cloud and other development tools for the Cuban people.” These tools, he told those attending, “will help activists and civil society to connect with each other and facilitate the flow of information inside and outside the Island. They will also help the Cuban people to access more services, including those that circumvent censorship.”

Nichols observed that “the economic situation is worse than even the so-called Special Period of the 1990s and the human rights situation is bleaker than it has been in decades.” He was also critical of the high rates of inflation facing Cubans and the shortages of food, medicine, and electricity.

“The Cuban government is quick to blame others for its economic ills without acknowledging the decades of mismanagement that led to the current crisis,” he said, noting Havana’s tendency to blame everything on the US embargo “ which Havana waves like a flag to justify all its failures.” 

“We continue to ask the Cuban government to implement economic policies that improve the country’s situation, such as greater freedom for private sector agents and much-needed agricultural reforms,” Nichols said.

Nichols also spoke about other aspects of the Administration’s Cuba policy, indicating that approximately 10,000 Cubans “from all walks of life” have successfully used the new US parole programme introduced in January this year. Since implementation he said, “the number of Cuban migrants attempting a dangerous irregular migration has plummeted.”

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