Three Cuban dissidents were free Thursday after being released in what a leading human rights advocate said was part of Havana's deal with Washington to release 53 members of the island's political opposition.
Neither Barack Obama's administration nor the Cuban government spoke publicly about the releases, although the U.S. State Department said on Tuesday that Cuba had freed some of 53 people the United States regards as political prisoners as agreed under last month's U.S.-Cuba rapprochement.
On Wednesday, the head of Cuba's Human Rights and Reconciliation Commission, Elizardo Sanchez, said that 19-year-old twins Diango Vargas Martin and Bianko Vargas Martin had been released without any of the judicial procedures that normally precede the end of political cases. A few hours later, he said a third dissident, Enrique Figuerola Miranda, was let go under similar circumstances.
"It appears that the big release has begun," said Sanchez, whose opposition group monitors the arrests of Cuban government critics. "We hope dozens more will be freed in the coming days."
The freed twin brothers were members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, a small dissident group considered to be the country's most vehemently anti-government.
According to Amnesty International, they were arrested in December 2012 as they tried to return to their home in Santiago, where they lived with their mother, a member of the dissident group Ladies in White. They had been held on charges of using violence or intimidation against a state official.
Miranda was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to three years, dissidents said, adding that he went on several hunger strikes behind bars.
Obama ended five decades of official U.S. hostility toward communist-governed Cuba by announcing that, along with an exchange of people held on espionage charges, he would move toward full diplomatic ties, drop regime change as a U.S. goal and use his executive authority to punch holes in the longstanding trade embargo.
His Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, welcomed the announcement but said detente would not lead Cuba to change its single-party political system or centrally planned economy.
U.S. officials told reporters on Dec. 17 that Cuba had agreed to free the 53 detainees, considered by Washington to be high-priority political prisoners. Castro said they would be released in "a unilateral way."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki reiterated on Wednesday morning that "some" of the 53 prisoners had already been released and said Washington had been in touch with Havana to ensure the rest are freed. She declined to provide further details.