CubaBrief: Lessons for Police in Cuba? Do Black Lives Matter in Cuba?

The Progressive, a publication founded in 1909 in Madison, Wisconsin claims to question anything, but when it comes to Cuba it has swallowed hook, line, and sinker the misinformation of the Castro regime on policing. On June 18, 2020 they published an article titled “Foreign Correspondent: Police Lessons From Cuba” by Reese Erlich that claims “Contrary to the image of brutal and repressive communists, police in Cuba offer an instructive example for activists in the United States.”

On the same day Havana Times published an article by IPS-Cuba titled “Is it legal to Take Photos or Videos of Police in Cuba?” The case of George Floyd became known because his death was recorded by a civilian who witnessed the events as they transpired, and then uploaded the video and shared it with others. Now the question is would it be legal to do that in Cuba? According to Cuban lawyer Humberto Lopez asked last Wednesday June 10th, on an episode of his “Hacemos Cuba” TV show “recording the police officer isn’t illegal or constitute a crime” but “if this image is uploaded onto a digital platform without this person’s consent, then you are using it without their authorization,”would violate the right to privacy of the police officer under Article 48 of the Cuban Constitution. The Cuban attorney added “that if the intent of the publication is to defame police actions (he didn’t say if it mattered if these actions were right or wrong), it is an administrative violation, which is subject to a fine, because it violates Decree-Law 370 passed in 2018, by the Ministry of Information Technologies and Communications.” 

Silverio Portal Contreras, prisoner of conscience

Silverio Portal Contreras, prisoner of conscience

Therefore, if the United States adopted this Cuban approach any person recording a police officer, then sharing that image on a digital platform would be violating their right to privacy, and if what they record the police officer doing, whether his or her actions were right or wrong, they would be fined and if they did not pay the fine would be subject to prison.

A law, patterned after Cuba’s, would require those who record police on or off the job to get the approval of the police officer recorded before sharing the video with any digital platforms. Thankfully, the First Amendment prohibits such restrictions in the United States, and also runs afoul of international human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Cuba is a signatory, even though the document is censored in the island.

According to a January 13, 2020 report in The New York Times a former high-ranking judge in Cuba provided documents which “showed that approximately 92 percent of those accused in the more than 32,000 cases that go to trial in Cuba every year are found guilty. Nearly 4,000 people every year are accused of being “antisocial” or “dangerous,” terms the Cuban government uses to jail people who pose a risk to the status quo, without having committed a crime.” Furthermore, the article says that “records show that Cuba’s prison system holds more than 90,000 prisoners. The Cuban government has only publicly released the figure once, in 2012, when it claimed that 57,000 people were jailed.”

Based on the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research, according to the January 13, 2020 article by EuropaPress, Cuba today has the largest per capita prison population in the world.

The United States, in contrast to Cuba, offers regular reports on its prison system, and allows the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its prison, including high security areas such as the prison at the Guantanamo Naval Base. The reason that so much is known and documented about the abuses with regards to the prisoners there is because the International Committee of the Red Cross has visited the U.S. Guantanamo detention facility over 100 times since 2001.

Meanwhile over the past 20 years the Cuban government permitted no visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross to Cuba’s prisons. The Castro regime considered allowing a visit in 2013, but decided against it.

The Castro regime has demonstrated by not allowing international observers into its prisons that it is out of sight out of mind from most international indices, and gets the benefit of the doubt from “progressive publications.”

Nevertheless there are moments that highlight the brutality of the regime.

Three young black men executed by firing squad for trying to leave Cuba.

Three young black men executed by firing squad for trying to leave Cuba.

Lorenzo Enrique Copello Castillo, Bárbaro Leodán Sevilla García, and Jorge Luis Martínez Isaac, were shot by firing squad following a speedy “trial” in 2003 for trying to leave Cuba. On April 2, 2003 eleven Cubans hijacked a ferry traveling to Regla from Havana with 40 people on board with the intention of traveling to the United States of America but ran out of fuel 28 miles off the Cuban coast and were towed back to the island.  Despite verbal threats made against the safety of the passengers to maintain control of the vessel, the situation, according to the authorities, ended without violence and that “all of those who had been on board were rescued and saved without so much as a shot or a scratch.”The hijackers were tried by the “Court for Crimes against State Security of the People’s Court of Havana. The Court had applied the specially expedited summary proceeding contemplated in Articles 479 and 480 of the Criminal Procedure Act, and found guilty. They appealed their sentence, and it was quickly denied.  Unlike in the United States the Judiciary in Cuba is not independent of the Executive.

In the early morning of April 11, 2003, following the decision handed down by the Council of State, the sentences were carried out and Lorenzo Enrique Copello Castillo, Bárbaro Leodán Sevilla García, and Jorge Luis Martínez Isaac were executed by firing squad. Nine days after the hijacking and three days after the trial.

The Cuban government also knew how to handle the aftermath and avoid negative publicity.

Family members were informed of their loved ones’ summary executions after they had already been buried.

Ramona Copello mourns the execution of her son Lorenzo Enrique in 2003

Ramona Copello mourns the execution of her son Lorenzo Enrique in 2003

Ramona Copello, Mother of Lorenzo Enrique Copello interviewed by the Associated Press described how: “They came to my home at 6 in the morning and knocked on the door and told me to go to the cemetery at 10:00. He was already dead and buried. Go to the cemetery at 10 (am) so we can tell you where your relative is buried. That was it. He was already buried, he was covered. I asked and implored and even kneeled so they would let me see his face. Since they are liars, I couldn’t believe it was him. I uncovered the crypt. I uncovered it because I wanted to see if it was really him, but I couldn’t see his face because the security and police arrived and so I didn’t get to see his face. I’m not sure if it’s my son or a dog buried there.”

Lorenzo Enrique was 31 years old and left behind a widow and an 11 year old daughter, who last saw her dad on April 10, 2003. He worked as a caretaker in a health center.

Bárbaro Leodán Sevilla executed in 2003

Bárbaro Leodán Sevilla executed in 2003

On April 12, 2003 the Spanish newspaper El Pais on how another family reacted. “According to eyewitnesses, in the neighborhood of Central Havana, where Bárbaro Leodán Sevilla lived, who was 21 years old, some incidents were recorded when the execution was reported to his family. Sevilla’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown upon hearing the news and went out of the house shouting against the government and crying, to which dozens of neighbors joined. The police arrived to control the situation and kept the area cordoned off all day long.”

On April 25, 2003 Fidel Castro appeared on television to defend the three executions, and show trials against nonviolent dissidents that had taken place in parallel. The official transcript left out unscripted comments by the old dictator who referred to the three executed men as the “tres negritos” which translates into English as the “three pickaninnies.”

Unlike in the United States, all mass media in Cuba is controlled by the Cuban Communist Party, and any embarrassing or inconvenient statements can be disappeared and erased from public view.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a black Cuban prisoner of conscience was subjected to systematic physical and psychological torture between 2003 and 2010, and following his death on February 23, 2010 was subjected to a campaign of vilification by Cuba’s Communist authorities. Orlando’s mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, denounced her son’s mistreatment and held up a blood stained shirt that belonged to her son, who had been beaten up by prison guards, for rejecting communist re-education and continuing to denounce human rights violations in the prisons.

Reina Luisa Tamayo, with her son's blood stained shirt

Reina Luisa Tamayo, with her son’s blood stained shirt

Ten years have passed since his untimely death, but many inside and outside of Cuba continue to demand justice for him and his family. The poster below reads “Tenth Anniversary of his Martyrdom: His Murderers Continue Without Being Tried” and underneath it reads “Orlando Zapata Tamayo: Martyr  for the Liberation of the Cuban people” followed by his birthdate and the day he died.

Black lives matter, without question but the question that necessarily arises is do they matter everywhere, regardless of ideology? It necessarily arises because the leadership of the Black Lives Matter organization, despite the above examples (which are the tip of the iceberg) never raised these cases, but instead mourned the death of Fidel Castro in November 2016 and more shockingly defended what today is a white minority dictatorship in Cuba, while remaining silent about these continuing injustices against black Cubans such as Silverio Portal Contreras, an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, who is serving a four-year prison sentence for “contempt” and “public disorder.” He was beaten by prison officials in mid-May 2020 and lost sight in one eye.

Havana Times, June 18, 2020

Is it legal to Take Photos or Videos of Police in Cuba?

Photo: Jorge Luis Banos/ IPS

Photo: Jorge Luis Banos/ IPS

A Cuban TV show called this issue into question and the online backlash came immediately.

By IPS-Cuba

HAVANA TIMES – “Is it legal to take photos or a video of a police officer on duty?”, Cuban lawyer Humberto Lopez asked last Wednesday July 10th, on an episode of his “Hacemos Cuba” TV show. The response was a kind of “yes, but no”, which led to different interpretations and a heated debate on social media, ever since.

The answer came from Joaquin Collado, lawyer and provincial assistant director of the National Organization of Law Firms in the central province of Villa Clara, who stated that the act in itself wasn’t a crime.

Collado explained that recording a police officer isn’t illegal or constitute a crime. “Police officers are civil servants in a public space, and they don’t hide their identity while working,” he summarized.

However – and this is where the controversy arose -, “if this image is uploaded onto a digital platform without this person’s consent, then you are using it without their authorization,” he pointed out.

The lawyer insisted that police officers, as individuals, are also protected by Article 48 of the Constitution, which stipulates that everyone “has the right to have their private and family matters, image and voice, honor and personal identity, respected.”

As a result, posting photos or videos of a police officer becomes a crime as the unauthorized use of an image. “You could put their personal and family’s wellbeing at risk. As well as putting the result of their job in jeopardy,” the lawyer added.

Collado also said that if the intent of the publication is to defame police actions (he didn’t say if it mattered if these actions were right or wrong), it is an administrative violation, which is subject to a fine, because it violates Decree-Law 370 passed in 2018, by the Ministry of Information Technologies and Communications.   

“An act that starts off being legal, can end up becoming illegal,” he concluded.

Such statements quickly led to great debate on social media, especially in regard to the double standard of Article 48 and unpopular Decree-Law 370, and their implementation.

Different interpretations can be found on the show too, depending on what is better suited. On an episode of the show broadcast on June 3rd, Maricela Sosa, vice-president of the People’s Supreme Court, made some complex statements to try and help people understand this process.

As the program host himself confirmed, one of the most frequent questions on the program in recent weeks include those linked to the projection of images, on national TV and in the general press, of people who have allegedly committed crimes of embezzlement and other similar acts. Photos, videos, conversations and even personal information have been revealed in reports that are released every day in Cuba’s state-controlled media.

When asked whether this violates the presumption of innocence principle that is stipulated in Article 95 of the Constitution, or whether it damages the image of the person as stipulated in Article 48 (which I’ve mentioned above), Sosa responded that the press has to violate this principle. “You are talking about acts that are public,” she said.

That is to say, yes, the state media can publish people’s faces because they are involved in acts of public knowledge; which contradicts what Collado later said. What constitutes a crime in one case, doesn’t constitute a crime in another.

Nevertheless, Collado insisted that images must be published with the person’s consent, although it is unclear whether this has always been the case. He also raised the issue that press reports shouldn’t assume suspects of alleged criminal acts are in the fact the perpetrators of these crimes, nor should it make statements or ask questions that might lead people to give information that could harm them. This was pretty much the main dish on many news reports, especially at the beginning of the broadcast.

In debates on social networks, there were many opinions and points of view that appeared in regard to the interpretation of laws on this TV show, about taking photos or recording videos of police officers. IPS Cuba has summarized them here:

Double interpretations: as we’ve already mentioned, in some cases, like financial crimes, acts and individuals are considered public and their image can be diffused in mass media; while in other cases, such as recording a police officer, who is a “civil servant in a public space”, as lawyers themselves insist, it becomes an issue of the indecent use of an individual’s personal image.

Media and the law: similar to the previous questioning, other criticism is linked to how state media constantly publishes citizens’ photos and videos, or other media formats, about police brutality in different countries, where consent has clearly not been given. Even when the law applies just to natural or legal persons in Cuba, this dissemination is considered hypocritical to what the State defends.

Informed consent: following the same media issue, controversy online argued that if the right of informed consent was applied properly, the majority of reports and audiovisual content on TV couldn’t be broadcast, because this isn’t a systematic practice in Cuban media. In fact, image rights are a pending issue in many spheres of the country.

Lack of awareness of the law: while opinions reproach not being able to publish images, they also insist that police officers don’t allow them to record. Several comments mentioned complaints of mistreatment and even police brutality against people for recording or taking photos of these representatives of the law.          

Recordings as proof and evidence: meanwhile, other ideas warned that not being able to publish photos or videos limited options to publicly denounce actions linked to police misconduct.

According to Internet users, having access to this material is important as proof of violations of the law, which the police do on a regular basis, they said. Recordings respond to a motive, they add, “not to tarnish their personal image, but to denounce their work as civil servants. And that is a civil right.”

Several Internet users even gave the example of George Floyd, who died in police custody, saying that if it hadn’t been for videos recorded in the US, nobody would have known. Many press reports in Cuba have spoken about the issue freely and reproduced photos of the four police officers involved in the terrible loss of life, which has fed the fire that is anti-racism activism worldwide.

From the Archives

The New York Times, January 13, 2020

Former Judge Says Cuba’s Judiciary Is Rigged Against Dissidents

Edel González Jiménez says he is not a defector, but a firm believer in the Cuban system who wants to see it reformed.

Edel González Jiménez, who spent more than 15 years as a judge in Cuba. Credit: Gianfranco Tripodo for The New York Times

Edel González Jiménez, who spent more than 15 years as a judge in Cuba. Credit: Gianfranco Tripodo for The New York Times

By Frances Robles

A former high-ranking judge in Cuba has joined an antigovernment activist in revealing information from secret government documents that show the government is holding thousands of inmates on dubious charges and has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The revelations by Edel González Jiménez, who spent more than 15 years on the bench and once supervised 65 other judges, are believed to be the first public challenge to the Cuban government by a top member of the judiciary.

“The repression that I am seeing against part of my people is not what I want for my people,” he said during a news conference on Monday in Madrid, where he was joined by members of an organization that works on behalf of political prisoners in Cuba and by members of the European Parliament. “I have a lot of fear about the future. Every day Cubans face more fear. I don’t want blood on the streets of Cuba, I don’t want these imprisonments.”

Choking back tears, Mr. González told the audience that his wife had advised him not to speak out, but that he had gone against her wishes because he felt it was his duty to challenge the government.

Mr. González said that Cuba’s judiciary was often controlled by state security forces that can manufacture cases against political opponents — a statement that critics will readily agree with, but that is surprising coming from a man who insisted that he remains a faithful member of the Communist Party of Cuba and a believer in Fidel Castro’s project.

His avowed support of the government makes his words significantly troubling for a country that frequently paints dissidents as mercenaries on Washington’s payroll.

“I am not looking for problems,” Mr. González, who left Cuba in 2018 and now lives in Peru, said in an earlier interview. “But I decided: Enough with cowardice.”

Mr. González was joined at the news conference by Javier Larrondo, a longtime anti-Castro activist who runs an organization called Prisoners Defenders in Madrid, in publicly announcing his call for the Cuban government to respect civil rights.

“This is an important blow to the regime,” Mr. Larrondo said.

Documents reviewed by The New York Times showed that approximately 92 percent of those accused in the more than 32,000 cases that go to trial in Cuba every year are found guilty. Nearly 4,000 people every year are accused of being “antisocial” or “dangerous,” terms the Cuban government uses to jail people who pose a risk to the status quo, without having a committed a crime.

Such measures are often used against young black men to stifle potential social uprisings, said Orlando Gutiérrez, an activist in Miami.

Those accused of being a threat are subjected to summary trials and have no right to a defense or to present evidence, Mr. González said. The records show that 99.5 percent of the people accused of this are found guilty.

Mr. Larrondo released Cuban court documents showing that dozens of men received sentences between two and four years in prison for offenses falling broadly under the category of “antisocial” — a phrase that can be applied to people who are unemployed, do not belonging to civic organizations associated with the state, behave disorderly and harass tourists, and associate with similarly “antisocial” people.

In case after case, the description of the crime is identical, suggesting that the police cut and pasted the language in the investigative report.

Arianna López Roque, 29, said that when her husband, Mitzael Díaz Paseiro, was sentenced to three and a half years for being “dangerous” in Mr. González’s judicial district, the court was “completely militarized.” He was not permitted to have a defense lawyer and only members of his immediate family were allowed to attend.

“The court in Cuba is manipulated by the dictatorship,” she said. “You don’t have the opportunity to defend yourself in any manner against what they say.”

Mr. González said that in ordinary criminal cases, judges are independent and free of government influence. But he said that cases against dissidents like Mr. Díaz are orchestrated by the state security apparatus, because judges, fearful of losing their jobs, go along with evidence that is often flagrantly concocted, he said.

The records show that Cuba’s prison system holds more than 90,000 prisoners. The Cuban government has only publicly released the figure once, in 2012, when it claimed that 57,000 people were jailed.

“What is important is what is behind those numbers,” Mr. González said. “People are in prison for stealing flour, because they are pizza makers and the government has set up a system where the only way to get flour is by buying in the black market from someone who stole it from the state.”

Still, Mr. González insisted on Monday that there was time for Cuba to resolve its problems internally, and he warned against any outside interference. “We will not allow anybody to impose anything, that should be clear to all countries. Cubans can manage this alone without any kind of interference,” he said.

Mr. González also cautioned against coming to the conclusion that the high number of prisoners in Cuba was proof of a failed society and judiciary. Other countries, he said, had fewer prisoners, but that reflected a high level of “impunity” and failure to prosecute common and violent crime, while Cuba instead “maintains social order.”

Officials at the Cuban Embassy in Washington and the Cuban judiciary did not respond to requests for comment, as is customary.

Eloy Viera Cañive, an independent legal analyst in Cuba, said the Communist Party and Ministry of Interior always have the last word in Cuba’s judiciary.

“This is a police state, and the Ministry of Interior has a lot of influence, even on judges,” Mr. Viera said. “True independence is impossible.”

Mr. González had a humble upbringing in Caibarién, a coastal town in central Cuba, where his mother was a restaurant cook and his father managed a government transportation warehouse.

In 1973, his uncles were among 11 fishermen on state-owned vessels attacked at sea by anti-Castro fighters from abroad, who were trying to force the men to defect. The attackers set fire to the boats, killed one man, and cut the throat of one of his uncles, who survived, even after being left adrift to die. The episode marked the family, turning them against those who tried to topple the Cuban government.

“We have always had a vocation of supporting the system,” he said.

After Fidel Castro fell ill in 2006, his brother Raúl Castro assumed the presidency. In a seismic shift for a country where hundreds of people have served long prison sentences for speaking out against the Communist Party, he organized community town halls and let it be known that Cubans were welcome to voice their opinions about vexing food shortages and other disappointments.

Although Raúl Castro stepped down from the presidency in 2018, he retained a great measure of control by remaining the head of Cuba’s Communist Party. That is, in part, why Mr. González is convinced that his announcement might actually be perceived as the kind of constructive criticism Raúl Castro encouraged.

Mario Félix Lleonart, a Baptist minister from the central province of Villa Clara who left Cuba as a political refugee in 2016, laughed out loud at the thought that Mr. González could return to his old job.

The two met 20 years ago when the minister’s wife was a secretary at the civil courthouse, and Mr. González was assigned to find out more about her political activities. Mr. González was surprisingly respectful and professional, the minister recalled.

“Edel was a brilliant student of law and the government kept promoting him,” he said. “But as he continued rising, his curiosity rose too. He realized his country was not in order.”

Last year, Mr. González’s former boss, Rubén Remigio Ferro, president of the Cuban Supreme Court, told the state newspaper, Granma that although the administration of justice on the island is improving, “deficiencies” still exist, such as trial delays, misguided decisions and a lack of professionalism.

President Miguel Díaz-Canel told judges while inaugurating the new judicial calendar last week that the courts must “remain a system that is distinguished first and foremost by its ethics, its transparency and the honest behavior of its members.”

Mr. González is betting that public criticism from someone who believes in the system the Castros built will trigger dialogue between longtime enemies of the Cuban government and loyal insiders who wish to see improvements in areas such as human rights.

He also hopes, eventually, to return to the island, where his 14-year-old daughter lives, to reclaim his job in Villa Clara.

“My wife says I’m too much of a dreamer,” Mr. González said.

Raphael Minder contributed reporting.

Frances Robles is a national and foreign correspondent based in Miami. Before joining The Times in 2013, she worked at the Miami Herald, where she covered Cuba and was based in both Nicaragua and Colombia.