HAVANA — Cuban dissidents freed as part of a historic detente with the United States said Tuesday that the warming of relations would help them keep pushing for change inside their country.
Fifty-three dissidents were freed, most in the last week, as part of a U.S.-Cuban deal that also saw both countries liberate high-profile prisoners charged with espionage and move to normalize relations after five decades of tension. The U.S.-Cuba deal divided the Cuban opposition, with some saying it will help their cause and others saying the U.S. didn't win enough concessions. That argument has been echoed by critics of the Cuban government outside the country.
"Will these 53 political prisoners be able to peacefully work in their country for freedom and human rights — or will they be thrown into Castro's gulags once again?" U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, one of the strongest critics of the warming of relations, said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "I believe the agreement the administration has reached with the Castro regime is one-sided and misguided."
Dissidents liberated by the deal told The Associated Press that they planned to return to activism, and said they were confident that that the decrease in tensions with the U.S. would improve life in Cuba and make activism easier. Cuba has long described domestic dissenters as agents backed by the U.S. and by expatriate critics of leaders Fidel and Raul Castro.
Angel Yunier Remon Arzuaga, a rapper known as "The Critic," told the AP that U.S.-Cuban detente "gives me the strength to keep demanding our rights and freedoms."
Arrested in 2013 after he said state security agents painted his house with pro-government slogans, leading to a fight with police, Remon was sentenced to six years for attacking state security. Held five miles from his house in eastern Cuba, he was loaded into a car Thursday and driven outside the prison.
"Right there they gave me a release document and said 'get out,'" Remon said.
"It's a hard blow against the regime when they themselves have to let out people when they supposedly had proof that they'd committed crimes," he said. He called the U.S.-Cuba deal "a historic moment, an overwhelming event for my country, and I feel very proud."
Miguel Alberto Ulloa, a 25-year-old Havana man arrested in 2013 for painting anti-government slogans, said he will stay at home until his the charges against him expire in two months but that he's "eager to go to the street, speak out, show that I'm dissatisfied."
He said he had watched Raul Castro and President Barack Obama's simultaneous announcements from prison on Dec. 17 and of the 100-odd prisoners of all types watching with him, "some were happy and others not. Some thought it was a lie and nothing is really going to happen."
He said he was optimistic it would bring change to Cuba.
"I think that the Cuban people really need something like what was announced," he said. "Now I have to keep fighting and find the path so that they don't jail me again. I'm not going to stop."
Reinier Mulet, a 28-year-old Havana man, said he took to the streets to paint slogans alongside Ulloa and was sentenced to three years in prison. He said the charges against him would remain in force for a year and authorities had warned him not to associate with "anti-social elements," although they had said nothing about further activism.
"I'm not afraid. I'm going to carry out the same activism as Miguel Alberto. I'm thinking of holding meetings and making videos to tell Cubans about their rights."
Michael Weissenstein contributed to this report from Havana. Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein