The historic announcement Wednesday that the U.S. and Cuba will seek to restore diplomatic and economic ties is more than a new beginning for both countries — it could signal an opportunity for Cuba to finally leave behind an era marred by notorious human rights abuses.
Humanitarian groups and international advocates long-concerned over the dire conditions for dissidents in Cuba welcomed the news, which comes after more than a half-century of hostility between the U.S. and the island nation's communist government. The White House has pledged to make improving human rights conditions in Cuba a central pillar of mending relations — a goal that got off to a good start with Cuba's release Wednesday of 53 political prisoners, as well as U.S. aid worker Alan Gross, who had been imprisoned for five years.
"This is very good news. The current U.S. policy has been totally counterproductive in terms of human rights. This doesn't completely overhaul it because the embargo is still in place, but it's a move in the right direction," said Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch. "There are very, very serious human rights violations in Cuba."
A flood of additional measures are on the way, with plans to establish an embassy in Havana, increase bilateral travel and commerce, and for Cuba to attend the Summit of the Americas next summer in Panama. The focus now turns to Congress, which will need to approve a legislative path to fully restoring diplomatic ties and lifting economic sanctions.
Humanitarian organizations and political leaders around the world have insisted for years that the economic embargo imposed by the U.S. only exacerbated poor conditions in Cuba. At the United Nations General Assembly in October, 188 out of 192 countries condemned the embargo for doing little to help human rights.
"The Cuban government has been able to use U.S. policy as a pretext, as a rationale, as an abuse of policy," Wilkinson said. "Cuba has been able to cast itself as the victim — the David standing up to the big Goliath."
The U.S. has also kept Cuba on the terror designation list for reasons believed to be more political than based in any substantial threat. Now for the first time since 1982, Secretary of State John Kerry is set to begin the process of removing Cuba from the list, and groups are hoping the move will spark an end to what has been a crackdown.
"This is certainly a very great step — the reaction of the Cuban government in hammering down on freedom of expression has been tied to the embargo," said Marselha Gonçalves Margerin, advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International. “We’re really hopeful that by improving this relationship, this retaliation to the dissidents on the ground will diminish greatly."
But easing decades of tense relations with the U.S. is not likely to lead to an immediate reversal of what has grown to be harsh crackdown on activists who have defied the Cuban government. The 52-year Castro dictatorship is riddled with a record of allegations of major abuses. Arbitrary arrests often led to harsh prison sentences. State-owned media squashed freedom of speech and the availability of outside information.
"The current U.S. policy has been totally counterproductive in terms of human rights."'
The conditions facing a growing dissident movement within Cuba has slowly garnered international attention with the bits of information made available. In February 2010, political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after staging a 85-day hunger strike. That same year, a 134-day hunger strike campaign led by Guillermo Farinas eventually prompted the release of 52 prisoners of conscience — people detained solely due to their expression of their beliefs. Meanwhile some of the most prominent activists are known as "the Ladies in White," a group of wives and mothers of political prisoners. They have become a symbol of peace in staging protests marches after Mass on Sundays.
Still, Julia Sweig, director of Latin America Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations, said Cuba's repressive regime has slowly relaxed in the time since Raúl Castro became president in 2008. That ease in posture was on full display at the funeral service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa last year when Castro and President Obama shook hands, a move that would have been unheard of for years.
"There is more freedom for dissidents to say what they want, they are less subject to state restraints than they once were," Sweig said. "There's a recognition that the freedom of speech that comes with Internet access is [irrepressible]."
For many in the Cuban-American community, however, the opening of discussions at the highest levels of power also comes with a clear cost: A swap between a U.S. intelligence agent imprisoned for 20 years in exchange for three Cubans jailed for 15 years after being convicted of spying in 2001.
Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino and Antonio Guerrero— the final members of the so-called "Cuban Five" remaining in U.S. custody — were released and allowed to return home Wednesday. The Cuban Five were accused of belonging to a spy network that would infiltrate anti-Castro groups and send information back to the Cuban government. The group was later arrested in 1998, two years after planes carrying the exile group known as "Brothers to the Rescue" were shot down by Cuban fighters. Hernandez was found guilty of conspiracy to murder for his involvement with the incident and given two life sentences.
Family members of the victims shot down and killed in the Brothers to the Rescue mission were in disbelief Wednesday to learn that Hernandez and other members of the Cuban Five were being released. Maggie Khuly, sister of pilot Armando Alejandre Jr., said her family was "extremely, extremely disturbed" by the move and had not been notified of the exchange.
“We cannot believe our country has done this to us. It's horrible, and it's a slap in the face to the U.S. justice system," Khyly told NBC News.