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For Cuba, Hostile Relationship With U.S. No Longer An Alibi

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The State Department today confirmed that Cuba has kept its pledge to release 53 political prisoners. That's a move that keeps the U.S. rapprochement with Cuba on track. A top State Department official plans to visit the island next week. The assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere will be the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Cuba in decades. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more on how the relationship is evolving.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The release of the political prisoners was not a prerequisite for next week's talks in Havana, but it will make things easier for the Obama administration to move ahead with the normalization of relations. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, says the White House is clear-eyed about this.

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SAMANTHA POWER: We know that the release of 53 political prisoners in recent days by the Cuban government - welcome as that step is and heartening as it is for their families - does not resolve the larger human rights problems on the island.

KELEMEN: Speaking in Kentucky at an event hosted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Power says the Obama administration shares the same goals as Cuba's toughest critics in Congress. The U.S. wants to promote change, but she says the embargo hasn't worked in 50 years, so the U.S. is trying something new. Cuba expert Julia Sweig says it's too early for the critics to make any judgments.

JULIA SWEIG: It would be a huge mistake to say that because the United States begins to allow its citizens to travel and trade there that we can therefore expect democracy, freedom, human rights cocktail to flow on that island the next day. That would be a huge mistake.

KELEMEN: Sweig, author of the book "Cuba: What Everyone Needs To Know," sounds frustrated by Senator Marco Rubio and other pro-embargo lawmakers who don't think the U.S. got enough from Cuba out of this deal.

SWEIG: The policy is no longer about two guys named Castro on the island and it's no longer about five members of Congress in the United States who have Cuban ties.

KELEMEN: Another longtime Cuba-watcher, Tomas Bilbao of the Cuba Study Group, says the increased contacts and more normal ties will help promote change on the island, though slowly.

TOMAS BILBAO: And to the extent that expectations for greater change rise in Cuba, that puts pressure on the Cuban government to deliver. It, I think, empowers Cubans to expect more and demand more. And I think that that's positive for bringing about change inside the island.

KELEMEN: Human rights groups have welcomed the release of 53 political prisoners, but say many of them still face restrictions. Robin Guittard of Amnesty International also says that Cuba needs to get rid of the repressive laws that put dissidents in jail in the first place.

ROBIN GUITTARD: Otherwise, it will be, again, only a smokescreen.

KELEMEN: Guittard says Cuba is only changing it tactics - releasing longtime prisoners of conscience, but increasing the number of short-term arrests that clamp down on free speech. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power cites one example - just days after Presidents Obama and Raul Castro announced they would normalize ties, a Cuban artist, Tania Bruguera, called for a rally in a main square in Havana, she says.

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POWER: Tania was picked up before she made it to the Revolution Square. She and around a dozen other activists and journalists were detained on the morning of the event by the Cuban authorities. Dozens of others activists, bloggers and artists were placed under house arrest so they couldn't even reach the square.

KELEMEN: In the last year alone, Power says Cuban authorities carried out nearly 8900 short-term detentions like these to stifle dissent. But she says now the Castro government has to do more to explain itself and not just use the hostile relationship with the U.S. as an alibi. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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