WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A White House official on Wednesday denied that the Cuban government was resisting freeing some of the 53 people listed for release as part of a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations on the grounds they had been linked to violence.
The denial followed a report on Wednesday by Reuters citing a congressional aide who said that “we’ve been told that the Cuban government has agreed to release all but several of the political prisoners on the list.”
“This is not true, we have not heard any such thing from the Cubans, we fully expect all 53 to be released,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
The prisoner release is part of an historic deal last month to renew diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba aiming to end more than five decades of hostility.
But detailed information about those to be freed, including their names, has not been divulged by President Barack Obama’s administration, providing ammunition for Republican congressional critics of the policy shift.
Both the White House and State Department said on Tuesday that “some” of the 53 people the United States regards as political prisoners had been released, but declined to elaborate.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday that one reason the prisoners were not being identified was because “we don’t want to put an even bigger target on their back as political dissidents.”
On Wednesday, the White House official stuck to the administration’s refusal to give the number or names of those released so far.
But the official said the United States and Cuba had agreed on a common list before the Dec. 17 announcement of an agreement to restore relations, and that Washington expects Havana to fulfill its part of the deal.
However, the congressional aide, also speaking on condition of not being named, suggested a possible obstacle to the release of everyone on the list.
“The government in Havana believes that the smaller group has committed acts of violence,” the aide said. The problem involved several of the prisoners but did not give a precise number, the aide added.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican who is a leading congressional critic of Obama’s policy shift, on Tuesday wrote to Obama to urge him to cancel upcoming talks with Havana - at least until all the prisoners are released.
Elizardo Sanchez, president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an opposition group that monitors arrests of Cuban government critics, said his group was unaware of any jail releases since the Dec. 17 announcement. His group has not been notified by Cuba or the United States about which names are on the list.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick in Washington, and David Adams in Havana.; Editing by David Storey, Bill Trott and Alan Crosby