CubaBrief: Cuban human rights defender to be sentenced today, others remain imprisoned for exercising their human rights

Havana expects that emphasis on the coronavirus pandemic will distract human rights organizations from the persecution of Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia, an opposition leader in Santiago de Cuba, who is expected to be sentenced today. This followed a trial that fell far short of international standards, let us hope the European Union and others continue to pay attention to his plight, and demand his immediate release. 

Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia subjected to political show trial in Cuba

Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia subjected to political show trial in Cuba

Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia was taken by the secret police on October 1, 2019, subjected to cruel and unusual punishments, and to a show trial where the Ministry of Justice over social media announced his guilt on the first day of the trial. The plight of this Cuban activist has caught the attention of the international community. The U.S. State Department released its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices on March 11th and focused on the plight of the UNPACU leader:


… There were confirmed reports of long-term disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. There were multiple reports of detained activists whose whereabouts were unknown for days or weeks because the government did not register these detentions; many detentions occurred in unregistered sites. For example, authorities detained UNPACU leader Jose Daniel Ferrer several times during the year. He was often held for several days at a time incommunicado or without being charged in court. Although uniformed security officials were present for his arrest, authorities denied having him in their custody (see also sections 1.d. and 2.d.). On October 1, police detained him for almost six weeks before allowing his family to see him and did not announce charges against him until November 15, 45 days after his disappearance. In the interim, authorities rejected writs of habeas corpus filed by his wife. As of December, Jose Daniel Ferrer remained in custody. …

Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

… “When authorities did allow Nelva Ismarays Ortega Tamayo, the wife of Jose Daniel Ferrer (see section 1.b.), to visit him in prison, she found him emaciated with signs of repeated physical torture. He was reportedly unable to lift his arms and recounted daily psychological trauma inflicted at the instruction of his jailers.”

However, there are Cuban artists, independent journalists, and faith leaders jailed for exercising their fundamental rights.

Photo taken from an online petition for the freedom of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara

Photo taken from an online petition for the freedom of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara

On March 11th in The Washington Post, an OpEd by Cuban author and journalist, Carlos Manuel Álvarez was published, highlighting the case of Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who had been detained 27 times by Castro’s secret police to suppress his art work. According to Álvarez, “on March 1 he was finally arrested in front of his house and charged with ‘defiling patriotic symbols’ and ‘property damage.’ Prosecutors want to sentence him to up to five years.” Other artists inside and outside of Cuba are calling for Luis Manuel to be freed, and are demonstrating their solidarity. Over three thousand people have signed an online petition demanding his freedom.

Roberto de Jesús Quiñones jailed for past six months

Roberto de Jesús Quiñones jailed for past six months

March 11th also marked six months since independent journalist Roberto de Jesús Quiñones Haces began serving a one year prison sentence. The Cubanet journalist ” was arrested by agents of the National Revolutionary Police (PNR for its initials in Spanish) on April 22 when attempting to cover a trial, as reported by Article 19 of Mexico and other organizations in a joint note.”

Mr. Jesús Quiñones was covering the trial of “two Christian homeschoolers, Pastor Ramón Rigal of the Church of God in Cuba, and his wife Ayda Expósito,” were sentenced to prison “for refusing to send their children to government-run schools.”

Parents jailed: Cuban pastor Ramón Rigal and his wife Adya with their children Ruth and Joel.

Parents jailed: Cuban pastor Ramón Rigal and his wife Adya with their children Ruth and Joel.

Mike Donnelly, of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HLDA), on  April 23, 2019 reported that “Cuban pastor Ramón Rigal and his wife Adya have been sentenced to jail terms of 2.5 and 1.5 years of jail, respectively, for homeschooling their two children Ruth, 13, and Joel, 9.  Other Cuban families have recanted their decision to homeschool and are sending their children back to school in order to avoid a similar fate.” HLDA has gathered over 32,000 signatures demanding the parents be freed.

There are currently six Cuban prisoners of conscience identified by Amnesty International and 127 identified political prisoners according to the Madrid based NGO, Prisoners Defenders.

Below is The Washington Post OpEd on Luis Manuel Otero followed by the Executive Summary of the U.S. State Department’s 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

The Washington Post, March 11, 2020

Cuba arrested a performance artist because he’s everything the regime can’t control

Artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara in front of the capitol building in Havana in 2019. (Courtesy of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara)

By Carlos Manuel Álvarez
March 11, 2020
Carlos Manuel Álvarez is a Cuban author and journalist.
HAVANA — Over the past three years, the young Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara has been detained 27 times. His public performances have long enraged the regime and on March 1 he was finally arrested in front of his house and charged with “defiling patriotic symbols” and “property damage.” Prosecutors want to sentence him to up to five years.

Otero, 33, was on his way to a LGBTQ+ event in front of the Cuban Institute of Radio and TV, after an official censored a kiss between two men in the movie “Love, Simon.” Now Otero is in jail, his head shaven, wearing a prison uniform.

The artist recently wore a hard hat around Havana to protest the collapse of a building balcony that killed three girls. He has also used the Cuban flag and images of national heroes in his protests; he was one of the leaders that demonstrated against Decree 349, which updated censorship laws, the state’s main cultural policy.

The Cuban regime wants to sink Otero: it says he’s not an artist and that he’s not allowed to do what he does. The problem has been Otero’s dedication — no mechanism of repression has been able to silence him or tear him completely from the two elements where authoritarianism thrives: the body and the streets. On one the regime exerts fear, on the other control.

Because Otero has been able to escape that vise, he has become a criminal; his performances — during which he dares to use his body freely on the streets — put on display a concrete and undeniable freedom. This last point is what’s most dangerous about him to the Cuban government.

What makes Otero’s work beautiful and complex — and makes the regime present it as scandalous — is that he is engaging primarily with himself. He is freeing and educating himself, erasing false limits between art and politics, constantly reinventing and challenging the old ideological precepts that have sought to flatten him as an individual.

The regime punishes Otero because he performs where everyone can see him. He is a limb that needs to be amputated before the disease spreads. Since the regime can’t put us all in jail, Otero is the scapegoat. By taking in the repression and the censorship, he protects other members of Cuba’s besieged civil society. Otero is in jail to pay for our freedom.

His body and the streets have been fundamental to his work because he is black and poor and self-taught — he has never been part of the establishment, the academy. His case also reveals a palpable bourgeoisie bias in Cuba against what art can do and how it should be consumed. During Otero’s trial, his witnesses will have to demonstrate why what he does is art and not desecration or public disturbance. Ironically, by trying to find some sort of aesthetic crime, the regime is already highlighting the power of the accused’s work.

Otero’s performances also reveal the operational tactics of Cuba’s powerful state. The fact that it has resorted to fabricating charges is what confirms that he is a true artist. The goal of the trial is to give him another identity, turn him into someone else, chip away like a perverse critic at his sense of mission.

But Otero has now been accepted into a vigorous tradition. Suffocating power causes a kind of social death and in the face of it, art, as Gilles Deleuze once said, is nothing but resisting.

U.S. Department of State, March 11, 2020

2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Cuba

Executive Summary

Cuba is an authoritarian state led by Miguel Diaz-Canel, president of the republic, with former president Raul Castro serving as the first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP). Despite ratifying a new constitution on February 24, Cuba remains a one-party system in which the constitution states the CCP is the only legal political party and the highest political entity of the state.

The Ministry of Interior exercises control over the police, internal security forces, and the prison system. The ministry’s National Revolutionary Police is the primary law enforcement organization. Specialized units of the ministry’s state security branch are responsible for monitoring, infiltrating, and suppressing independent political activity. The national leadership, including members of the military, maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of abuse of political dissidents, detainees, and prisoners by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; political prisoners; and arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy. The government severely restricted freedom of the press, used criminal libel laws against persons critical of leadership, and engaged in censorship and site blocking. There were limitations on academic and cultural freedom; restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly; denial of freedom of association, including refusal to recognize independent associations; restrictions on internal and external freedom of movement and severe restrictions of religious freedom. Political participation was restricted to members of the ruling party, and elections were not free and fair. There was official corruption, trafficking in persons, outlawing of independent trade unions, and compulsory labor.

On February 24, the country adopted a new constitution in a coerced referendum marred by violent government repression against those that opposed the proposed constitution. On February 12, for example, 200 police and security agents raided the homes of leaders of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) for openly campaigning against the draft constitution, detaining and reportedly beating UNPACU members. Other opponents reported that the government had blocked their email and texts to keep them from disseminating opposition campaign materials. Article 5 of the constitution enshrines one-party rule by the CCP, disallowing for additional political expression outside of that structure. Although the new constitution adds explicit protections of freedom and human rights, including habeas corpus, authorities did not respect them, nor did the courts enforce them.

Government officials, at the direction of their superiors, committed most human rights abuses and failed to investigate or prosecute those who committed the abuses. Impunity for the perpetrators remained widespread.  [ Full report available here ]