“While we strongly oppose forced exile, the United States will not turn its back on political prisoners, and if they want to come to America, we will explore available avenues under U.S. law to welcome them,” Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian A. Nichols said this week.
In a speech at Florida International University (FIU), Nichols stated that “publicly – and privately in discussions with Cuban officials – the U.S. government continues to call for the release of political prisoners.”
However, he did not specify if both executives are currently negotiating the possible release of imprisoned opponents, whom Havana does not consider political prisoners, and for whose release international organizations and institutions such as the Catholic Church and the European Union have advocated.
Instead, he confirmed that the Washington Embassy in Havana “has constant communication with the dissident community on the island, including the families of political prisoners,” whom he described as “an incredibly brave group of people, facing extremely difficult conditions.”
The official cited NGOs, which, he said, estimate that more than 700 protesters from the July 2021 anti-government protests in Cuba “are among the more than 1,000 political prisoners currently behind bars.”
These protesters have been tried and sentenced on the island — in many cases to long prison terms — for crimes such as sedition, assault, contempt, public disorder and incitement to commit a crime, after their participation in the protests.
The remarks by the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs take place after last year Washington and Havana had some official contacts after the setback in bilateral relations imposed by the Trump administration.
In addition, it comes a month after the Nicaraguan government released and deported more than 200 opponents to the United States, a move that the State Department described as “positive and welcome.”
In his presentation at FIU, Nichols also elaborated on the Biden administration’s current policy toward Cuba.
In that sense, he first mentioned human rights, as well as the establishment of “meaningful ways to support the Cuban people while limiting benefits” for the Cuban government, which he called a “regime.”
On one of the topics of the hour, immigration policy, he pointed out that his government has been working “to expand safe and legal migration options.”
“Our Embassy in Havana is now fully open for immigrant visa processing and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has resumed processing under the Cuban Family Reunification Program,” he confirmed.
In addition, the official celebrated that the Biden administration took “the very bold and innovative step of launching a new parole program,” through which up to 30,000 individuals from Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Haiti can enter the United States each month.
According to him, to date “about 10,000 Cubans have successfully used the program,” through which “Cubans from all walks of life have benefited, including members of the human rights community.”
Consequently, he said, “since the launch of the parole program in particular, the number of Cuban migrants attempting dangerous irregular migration has plummeted.”
“Recognizing it is still early days, we are pleased to see Cuban families choosing these legal options,” he said.
On the other hand, he reiterated that his government supports the emerging Cuban private enterprise, with the aim “to support greater freedom and expand economic opportunities.”
“We are working,” he continued, “to expand access to technological services and tools that will enable trailblazing Cuban entrepreneurs to start or grow their businesses and thrive in the global digital economy, which will create jobs and opportunities for the Cuban people.”
“As we implement these measures,” he stressed, “we will continue to call on the Cuban regime to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms for all Cubans and unconditionally release all political prisoners.” And he made clear the reasons for the talks with the island’s authorities: “To support the Cuban people and protect our U.S. national interests, we also do have direct engagement with the regime when it is in our interest to do so.”
“Such engagement includes discussions on migration, scientific and technical cooperation including maritime and aviation safety, and food and animal health protocols. It also includes law enforcement cooperation as appropriate,” he explained.
“The United States will consider all options available to continue supporting the Cuban people as they call for greater freedom, access to resources, and respect for human rights,” he concluded.