HAVANA The Cuban government has granted seven dissidents who are out of prison on parole a one-time permission to travel outside the country in an apparent gesture to the United States ahead of a visit by President Barack Obama.
Four others in the same category were not granted the permission for reasons not immediately clear, dissidents reported.
"We welcome the news ... and we continue to encourage the Cuban government to allow the remaining four former prisoners to travel as well," Peter Boogaard, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said in a statement.
U.S. critics of Obama's opening to Cuba have complained that the president has received little in return for restoring diplomatic relations with the former Cold War enemy. To cement improving ties, Obama will visit Cuba on March 21-22.
Around the time of detente in December 2014, Cuba's Communist government released 53 people whom Washington considered political prisoners.
But some of those 53 were arrested again after being released and two remained in jail, according to the dissident group Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
Secretary of State John Kerry told a congressional budget hearing that Washington expressed its disappointment to Havana over the re-arrests but that he expected Cuba to release them.
"We believe they will be released ... and that signifies some listening, some movement" on the part of the Cuban government, Kerry said.
Cuba considers the opponents a tiny minority that has lost legitimacy by accepting funding indirectly from the U.S. government.
The seven granted travel freedom were summoned to the Interior Ministry and told they would be allowed one trip abroad, though upon their return they would resume serving sentences out of prison with a ban on foreign travel.
"It appears to be some kind of gift they want to present to Obama, but in reality it is nothing concrete because when we come back we will return to legal limbo," said Martha Beatriz Roque, one of the seven.
The 11 dissidents were among 75 opponents rounded up in the 2003 Black Spring crackdown. With the intervention of the Roman Catholic Church and Spain, all 75 were released in 2010 and 2011 under the condition that they leave Cuba.
However, the 11 holdouts refused and opted to remain in prison rather than abandon their homeland. Eventually they were allowed to continue serving their sentences, which range from 18 to 25 years, while out of prison
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Nelson Acosta in Havana; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Alan Crosby and Leslie Adler)