CubaBrief: Cuba, International Human Rights Day in the time of COVID-19, the importance of property rights and free expression for a free society

International Human Rights Day is December 10th, and commemorates the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) on December 10, 1948. Cubans, along with other Latin Americans, led the drive for the drafting and adoption of this international human rights charter at the time. Unfortunately, in too many places this document is viewed as something to be ignored, or in worse cases, such as Cuba, a subversive threat to the existing repressive political order. This is why on December 10th in Miami, Washington DC, The Hague, Geneva, Bilbao, and across Cuba there will be protests for human rights. This is also a good time to reflect on the state of human rights in 2020.

Screen Shot 2020-12-10 at 11.22.46 AM.png

The economic rise of Communist China with the help of Western countries over several decades challenged the assumption that for a society to progress economically it needed to respect the fundamental human rights of its citizenry, and that included property rights, freedom of expression, and the long list of liberties and rights enumerated in the UNDHR. This illusion was sustained until February 2020 when the totalitarian nature of the People’s Republic of China disappeared whistleblowers, plunged the world into a pandemic that it could have warned earlier about, and took measures to contain. Trillions of dollars are being lost, and there is the possibility of a global depression.

The case made by some academics that the China model was a “meritocratic” alternative to liberal multi-party democracy should be discredited. Will this end the 15 year global decline in human rights standards? Will it mark a return to greater respect for human rights in light of the present crisis?

Meanwhile in Cuba, the Castro regime has attempted to use the COVID-19 pandemic to tighten repression even further in the communist police state. Human Rights Watch on December 7, 2020 reported on 34 different cases.

“Cuban authorities are using Covid-19 rules to expand their repressive tool kit against critics,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “This is part of a broader pattern in which Cuban authorities use any excuse to systematically repress dissent.”

Between July and November, Human Rights Watch interviewed 35 people in Cuba by telephone, including victims, their relatives, and lawyers. Human Rights Watch also reviewed judicial rulings, media reports, and records of fines levied against dissidents or people the authorities appear to have perceived as critics, and corroborated videos posted on social media.

Human Rights Watch documented cases involving 34 victims in which authorities invoked rules concerning the Covid-19 pandemic to target government critics and others. Of 20 arrested, 3 were arbitrarily prosecuted, 3 others were fined, and 14 more were threatened with prosecution for “spreading an epidemic.” Eight who were not arrested were fined under Covid-19 rules in ways that appeared arbitrary, and two others were threatened with prosecution.

The pandemic has granted expansive powers to governments in the midst of this health crisis. Beijing and Havana have both behaved terribly, and human rights defenders need to be vigilant not only in these repressive regimes, but elsewhere and this includes in democracies. However, despite the claims made by China and Cuba on their respective “paradises” international indices globally indicate most of the rest of the world have other places in mind to live.

There is a strong correlation between respect for private property rights and quality of life. Eight out of the 10 countries with the highest quality of life in the world also had the strongest respect for private property rights. The two outliers were Denmark that was 13th and Germany that was 17th in respect for property rights but second and tenth respectively in quality of life. Seven out of 10 countries with the highest quality of life in the world also had the best ratings in press freedoms, as documented by Reporters Without Borders. They are all liberal democracies.

Details on how ranking was arrived at available here.

The case of Cuba over the past four years contrasts with the approach still taken with China, and there are positive results that had not been achieved by the prior Administration over eight years. During the rapprochement with Cuba that began in 2009 and intensified in 2014 the outcome was not economic liberalization but the takeover of the military of areas of the economy that had been previously under civilian or private control. This trend reversed under the current White House, and is continuing with market oriented reforms responding to sanctions and the challenging international environment due to COVID-19.

These policies have benefited both average Cubans and Americans. It is true that economic sanctions have been tightened by the current Administration, and Title III of the Cuban Democracy Act makes life more difficult for those who traffic in stolen properties. Nevertheless, trade continues between U.S. companies and the Castro dictatorship, and in 2017 and 2018 U.S. exports to Cuba increased compared to the last two years of the Obama Administration. This happened at the same time that Havana defaulted on its loans to the Paris Club. It is counter-intuitive but the December 17, 2014 announcement that the United States and Cuba would seek normalized relations was followed by a collapse in U.S. exports to Cuba.

Reuters reported on July 29th in the article “Cuba Loosens Straitjacket on Private Sector to Stimulate Economy” that “Communist-run Cuba is loosening restrictions on small businesses as it seeks to stimulate a state-dominated economy hammered by the implosion of ally Venezuela, U.S. sanctions and the pandemic.”

Meanwhile, Nora Gámez Torres and Mario J. Pentón reported on July 30th in the Miami Herald in their article “We are closing all doors.” The Trump administration goes after Cuban bank in London” that the “United States sanctioned Havin Bank, a London-based Cuban-owned bank, on Thursday in another attempt by the Trump administration to cut off the money flowing to the island’s government.” Havin Bank is part of the Castro regime’s conglomerate GAESA that is run by Raul Castro’s former son-in-law, General Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, and has a record of corruption.

This was not supposed to happen, according to the Chamber of Commerce, the Ag Lobby, and the Pro-Castro lobby sanctions do not work, and that the way that the Castro regime would open up the economy in Cuba would be through loosening sanctions and providing credits to the dictatorship that would help Cubans. This was attempted during the Obama Administration and the results were opposite to what was claimed. Trade between the two countries collapsed in 2015 to $180.3 million from a peak of $711.5 million in 2008, the last year of the Bush Administration.

However, the regime in Havana has still a long way to go to be an attractive investment. Moody’s Corporation has been around since 1900 and invented modern bond credit ratings. On December 8, 2020, Moody’s announced their completion of a periodic review of the government of Cuba that paints a negative picture for investment.

The credit profile of Cuba (issuer rating Caa2) is supported by the country’s “b3” economic strength, reflecting the moderate size of the economy and low growth underpinned by a narrow economic base; Cuba’s “caa2” institutions and governance strength, reflecting the lack of available and timely economic data, as well as a very weak track record of timely and full debt repayment; its “baa2” fiscal strength, taking account of the government’s moderate debt burden and limited debt affordability pressures, although additional liabilities are likely but not confirmable because of the lack of available data; and its “b” susceptibility to event risk, reflecting very high external vulnerability risk due to strained external finances owing to the loss of Venezuelan financial support and lower tourism receipts.

Caa2 rating means that obligations in Cuba are “judged to be of poor standing and are subject to very high credit risk.” Despite this report Havana was touting on December 9, 2020 that it had attracted $1.9 billion in investments. This is happening because due to the intervention of other governments to guarantee investments, a situation where profits remain privatized but risk is socialized, among taxpayers, is not Capitalism but it turns Cuba into a place for investment despite its record as a deadbeat.

Fidel Castro's son traveled around the Mediterranean Sea on his 160 foot yacht in 2015

Fidel Castro’s son traveled around the Mediterranean Sea on his 160 foot yacht in 2015

This is because corporations know that taxpayers are the ones who end up paying for Havana’s poor credit rating.

This is how Fidel Castro’s son, Antonio Castro ended up in Turkey in June of 2015 leaving a restaurant where he had his bodyguards beat up reporters and try to take their cameras to avoid showing the embarrassment of riches. Mr. Castro arrived from the Greek island of Mykonos aboard his 160 foot yacht and booked five en suite rooms at a luxury hotel for himself and his entourage.

Antonio Castro, Cuban dictatorship's point man for baseball business

Antonio Castro, Cuban dictatorship’s point man for baseball business

How does he afford it? The same way his son Tony Castro, who also jets around the world does, and many other members of the Castro clan.

Millions of taxpayers around the world are subsidizing Cuba’s military and the Castro family elite living the highlife on yachts, private planes, mansions, and trips to exclusive resorts. Thanks to the U.S. economic embargo none of those taxpayers are Americans.

The Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas who passed away thirty years ago on December 7, 1990. Ten years earlier in 1980, shortly after arriving from Cuba he observed that “the difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream.”

Turns out Reinaldo was wrong there are additional differences that emerge when you have rights. Not only the right to scream (freedom of expression), but the right to peacefully assemble, the right to your own property, and a long etcetera. These rights, and a strong and independent press can bring transparency and accountability to those in power, and more importantly provide protection to those who are not in power. This dynamic has been shown to work the world over to be the key to wealthy societies where the majority live with the highest quality of life on the planet.

In places like Cuba and North Korea there are a very few who live “well” and they tend to be close relatives of the ruling family, and if your wealth is too visible and becomes an embarrassment then you can become a liability. Of course if you meet with the wrong people, even family status may not save you. In these countries the quality of life for the 1% is not guaranteed if they run afoul of the ruling junta for whatever reason.

It is important to remember that property rights are human rights. Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.”

Universal human rights, and the rule of law, exist in order to protect those without power from the abuse of the powerful. In Cuba in 2020 the poor do not have the right to complain. When balconies are collapsing onto streets that people walk through in Havana, and a Cuban complains for better conditions, they are jailed, beaten, tortured, and slandered.

Silverio Portal Contreras prior to his jailing

Silverio Portal Contreras prior to his jailing

Silverio Portal Contreras was sentenced to four years in prison for alleged crimes of “public disorder” and “contempt” after leading several public protests demanding decent housing for all Cubans. He was detained on June 20, 2016 in Havana and the court document states that “the behavior of the accused is particularly offensive because it took place in a touristic area.” The document further describes the accused as having “bad social and moral behavior” and mentions that he fails to participate in pro-government activities. According to Silverio’s wife, before his arrest he had campaigned against the collapse of dilapidated buildings in Havana. Silverio was recognized as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International on August 26, 2019. He was beaten by prison officials in mid-May 2020 and lost sight in one eye, and spent 2 years and 9 months unjustly imprisoned. He suffered a stroke during his imprisonment and is now in fragile health.

Regime officials, who jailed Silverio, did not heed his warnings regarding dilapidated buildings. On January 27, 2020 three school girls died when a balcony collapsed on them in Old Havana. María Karla Fuentes and Lisnavy Valdés Rodríguez, both 12 years old, and Rocío García Nápoles, 11 years old were killed.

The Cuban government does not provide data on its prison population, and has not permitted a visit to its prisons by the International Committee of the Red Cross since 1990, and that was only for one brief span of time. There could easily be thousands of Silverios rotting in prisons across the island for speaking out.

Places like Cuba and North Korea are poverty stricken because human rights are systematically denied. By definition communist regimes do not respect property rights. The Mercatus Center, a think tank at George Mason University, observes that “the absence or insecurity of property rights is a central and ubiquitous cause of poverty, not only in the very poorest states, but also in middle-income countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China.”

However property is not the only right that needs to be operating for society to advance. Freedom of expression is not only important for a democratic society, but it is also important for a dynamic and innovative market society to operate. Without free speech and free inquiry scientific inquiry stagnates, and advances in human knowledge come to a halt. The ability to scream and express displeasure when policies or individuals are doing you harm is essential to identify and remedy the problem. Censorship whether by government or private actors is a threat to this diagnostic process.

Reinaldo Arenas was partially right. You can scream in capitalism without consequences, but not in communism, and with that human cry begins a fruitful dialogue in a free society. In a communist regime that human cry that sparks a fruitful dialogue, can begin the dismantling of a totalitarian regime and the rebirth of a free society. This is why the despots in Havana delayed as long as they could access to laptops, cell phones, and the internet, but economic realities combined with knowledge of how to control and censor the internet, learned from their Chinese counterparts gave them confidence that they could maintain control. That control is now being challenged by artists and academics that are tired of six decades of repression, and many of them are too young to remember the last public terror unleashed by the communist dictatorship.

The New York Times, December 9, 2020

‘On Social Media, There Are Thousands’: In Cuba, Internet Fuels Rare Protests

Artists gathered by the hundreds in Cuba’s largest protest in decades after seeing videos of police detentions that were filmed on cellphones and circulated online.

Hundreds of artists and young Cubans met in front of the Ministry of Culture last month to protest recent arrests and demand greater freedom of expression.Credit...Ismael Francisco/Associated Press

Hundreds of artists and young Cubans met in front of the Ministry of Culture last month to protest recent arrests and demand greater freedom of expression.Credit…Ismael Francisco/Associated Press

By Ed Augustin, Natalie Kitroeff and Frances Robles

Leer en español

HAVANA — In another era, the detention of a young Cuban dissident may have gone completely unnoticed. But when the rapper Denis Solís was arrested by the police, he did something that has only recently become possible on the island: He filmed the encounter on his cellphone and streamed it live on Facebook.

The stream last month prompted his friends in an artist collective to go on a hunger strike, which the police broke up after a week, arresting members of the group. But their detentions were also caught on cellphone videos and shared widely over social media, leading hundreds of artists and intellectuals to stage a demonstration outside the Culture Ministry the next day.

This swift mobilization of protesters was a rare instance of Cubans openly confronting their government — and a stark example of how having widespread access to the internet through cellphones is testing the power balance between the communist regime and its citizens.

“The videos had a huge impact on us,” said Tania Bruguera, one of the artists involved in the protests. “We saw that any artist in Cuba who decides to speak up, or question what the government says, or make art that asks uncomfortable questions, could receive the same treatment.”

It isn’t clear yet whether this incipient protest movement will gather the momentum and discipline needed to fundamentally transform a political system that has quashed decades of challenges — or will simply fade away. But the mere fact that such a large protest happened at all — and led to the creation of a formal movement with a name and a Facebook page — is in itself extraordinary in a country where the opposition is barely existent.

And as protesters’ demands have shifted from ending limits on artistic expression to pushing for more fundamental political freedoms, they have earned the attention of a growing swell of young Cubans not normally inclined toward activism.

“What is happening in Cuba is unprecedented,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the director of the Americas program at Human Rights Watch. “It’s an awakening.”

When President Trump came into office, he quickly rolled back the Obama administration’s reopening of relations between the two countries, which he called a “terrible and misguided deal.”

Yet one of the conditions baked into that deal — that Cuba broaden internet access — has continued to play out on the island, leading to greater pressure on the government.

Cuba first made it possible to get internet on cellphones two years ago, and now four million people can get online that way. A total of seven million Cubans — about two-thirds of the population — have some kind of access to the web, government data shows.

The government has blocked several critical websites, including Radio Martí, an anti-Castro news outlet funded by the U.S. government. But it allows access to major U.S. newspapers and Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube.

The upshot: There is a growing army of Cubans who can easily get online and use social media to organize around common causes.

Sometimes their campaigns are acceptable to the government, as was the case with the online animal rights advocates who got permission from authorities to hold a march against animal cruelty. Others, like the gay rights activists who were detained after using Facebook to organize a protest last year, were not as welcome.

The marches were small, but were among the first independently organized demonstrations on the island in decades.

“It is this awakening of civil society, facilitated by the spread of the internet and social media, which is posing this challenge to the government,” said William LeoGrande, a Cuba specialist at American University. “To what extent does a political system which prides itself on control allow the kind of civil society expression that we’ve seen growing?”

If not for Facebook, it may have been easy for the government to dismiss complaints from Mr. Solís, the detained rapper, and his artist friends.

In a country hammered by U.S. sanctions, the politics of some in the group have raised eyebrows. Mr. Solís is a die-hard Trump supporter: In the video he posted of his arrest, he screamed: “Donald Trump 2020! That’s my president.”

Some members of his artists’ collective, known as the San Isidro Movement, have been seen with U.S. embassy officials, a link the government has used to label them “mercenaries” intent on destabilizing Cuba.

Still, the clips of the police detaining Mr. Solís — who was later sentenced to eight months in jail for insulting law enforcement — and then cracking down on the artists’ peaceful hunger strike, did not sit well with many Cubans.

The night when the hunger strike was shut down, a much broader coalition of artists began messaging each other on WhatsApp and Facebook, and the next morning people started gathering in front of the Culture Ministry.

“We didn’t go there to defend those artists’ views,” said Ms. Bruguera, the visual artist who has been protesting. “We went there to defend the right of all artists to dissent.”

What started as anger over the arrests morphed into conversations among the artists about their frustration with limits to free expression on the island. They commiserated over their fear of government censorship or outright repression because of the art, theater or movies they produce.

“I want to do free art, without state security parked on my corner,” said Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a performance artist who led the hunger strike last month.

By nightfall, hundreds had gathered for the spontaneous protest against the government — something not seen in Cuba since the nation plunged into economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Troubadours, artists, playwrights, rappers and reggaetoneras played music, read poetry and sang the national anthem. When the ministry allowed a group of demonstrators into the building to negotiate, those gathered outside clapped every 10 minutes or so to express support.

Artists have a particular cachet in Cuba, a deeply patriotic nation that has long prided itself, including under communism, on the prowess of its cultural institutions.

And the government may have found it harder to outright reject this particular group of protesters, which included some of the nation’s most prominent artists. Jorge Perugorría, one of the most famous Cuban actors, and Fernando Pérez, a celebrated film director, both showed up that night.

“I will always go where I feel my presence can help,” Mr. Pérez said, adding he believed the protests “come from a great love of Cuba.”

The crowd also drew younger stars, like Yunior García, 38, who has worked for institutions linked to the state all his life, writing plays, short films and telenovelas for Cuban television.

“The fact that I’ve been permitted to create doesn’t mean I can stand by while others are censored,” he said.

But communication between the protesters and the ministry broke down after their initial meeting in late November. Protesters are now at an impasse with the government, and many now say they are being intimidated by the state’s security apparatus.

Several artists who were present say police vehicles are parked outside their homes, a tactic that some described as a form of house arrest. Ms. Bruguera has been detained twice by police when she ventured outside and said officers suggested she and others could be charged with “sedition and civil disobedience.”

In a report released this week, Human Rights Watch documented 34 instances in which the Cuban government has punished dissidents, including some involved with the artists’ movement, by accusing them of violating restrictions intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Nine were accused of not wearing a face mask properly.

Even holed up in their homes, however, many of the artists have continued to publicize what they say is harassment by the government in videos and posts on Facebook.

And the government has not stopped the flow of messages on WhatsApp group chats, which the protesters say is keeping the broader movement alive.

“The spark that we lit with the protest, that energy hasn’t left us,” said Luz Escobar, a journalist who attended the demonstration. “We feel that there were hundreds of people connected to it, and that was just on the streets.”

“On social media,” she added, “there are thousands.”

Human Rights Watch, December 7, 2020

Cuba: Covid-19 Rules Used to Intensify Repression

Critics Imprisoned, Fined, Harassed

Artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Anamelys Ramos present a habeas corpus regarding detained musician Denis Solís, in Havana, on November 10, 2020. Otero Alcántara and Ramos were arrested on November 26. © 2020 Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara

Artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Anamelys Ramos present a habeas corpus regarding detained musician Denis Solís, in Havana, on November 10, 2020. Otero Alcántara and Ramos were arrested on November 26. © 2020 Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara

(Washington, DC) – The Cuban government is using regulations designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 to harass and imprison critics, Human Rights Watch said today.

On November 26, 2020, Cuban security forces detained 14 government critics in Havana after alleging that one of them had violated Covid-19 rules by failing to re-take a test for the coronavirus. The detentions follow a series of cases in which security officers and prosecutors have targeted dissidents, arresting or charging them with “spreading an epidemic,” and imposing fines for alleged violations of Covid-19-related restrictions. Using Covid-19 enforcement restrictions as a pretext, authorities have engaged in arbitrary arrests, abusive prosecutions, and detention in unsanitary and overcrowded cells conducive to the spread of Covid-19.

“Cuban authorities are using Covid-19 rules to expand their repressive tool kit against critics,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “This is part of a broader pattern in which Cuban authorities use any excuse to systematically repress dissent.”

Between July and November, Human Rights Watch interviewed 35 people in Cuba by telephone, including victims, their relatives, and lawyers. Human Rights Watch also reviewed judicial rulings, media reports, and records of fines levied against dissidents or people the authorities appear to have perceived as critics, and corroborated videos posted on social media.

Human Rights Watch documented cases involving 34 victims in which authorities invoked rules concerning the Covid-19 pandemic to target government critics and others. Of 20 arrested, 3 were arbitrarily prosecuted, 3 others were fined, and 14 more were threatened with prosecution for “spreading an epidemic.” Eight who were not arrested were fined under Covid-19 rules in ways that appeared arbitrary, and two others were threatened with prosecution.

Thirty of the people targeted were detained, harassed, fined, or threatened with criminal prosecution for violating rules concerning Covid-19; these included nine who were accused of not wearing a face mask properly. Two others were threatened with prosecution for “spreading an epidemic” for publishing information regarding Covid-19. In two other cases, officials invoked norms connected to the pandemic, though they did not point to a specific violation under Cuban law. One dissident, for example, was fined for not reporting that a friend was not wearing a face mask properly.

All detainees were denied an opportunity to make a phone call. Some were beaten, and some lacked legal representation during criminal proceedings.

Most of the 11 people fined denied violating the rules. In some cases, officers responded by threatening to prosecute them for contempt. Some government critics said they were never told what they were accused of.

The crime of “spreading an epidemic” is punishable with up to nine months in prison, as well as fines. It is defined in the criminal code broadly as “violat[ing] the measures or provisions established by the competent health authorities to prevent and control communicable diseases and the programs or campaigns for the control or eradication of… serious or dangerous epidemics.”

Cuban authorities have also passed specific legislation regarding the pandemic. In May, the government passed a resolution requiring people to wear a face mask when outside of their homes. An August decree, applicable only to the Havana province, establishes fines of 2,000 Cuban pesos (US$77) – roughly twice the average monthly salary – for people who, among other transgressions, hold parties, fail to use a face mask properly, or “impede in any way the fulfillment of sanitary measures.” The fines are to be doubled if not paid within 10 days. Under the Cuban criminal code, people who fail to pay fines can also be sentenced to up to six months in prison.

On April 12, police arrested Keilylli de la Mora Valle, of the opposition group Patriotic Union of Cuba, as she smoked a cigarette on a street in the city of Cienfuegos, contending that she was not wearing her face mask properly. At the police station, de la Mora Valle began to strip off her clothes in protest. An officer grabbed her by the neck, took her into a cell, and kicked her repeatedly in the thigh and knee.

After a May 7 trial in which she did not have legal representation, she was sentenced to a year and a half in prison for “contempt,” “resistance,” “disobedience,” and “spreading an epidemic.” She remains in prison. A relative of hers told Human Rights Watch that she has tried to kill herself twice in reaction to threats and harassment by guards.

Under international law, certain basic human rights cannot be restricted even in times of emergency. These include the prohibition on ill-treatment, the fundamental principles of a fair trial and freedom from arbitrary detention, the right to judicial review of detention, and freedom of thought. Restrictions on other rights, such as freedom of expression and association, due to a serious public health emergency may only be justified when they have a legal basis, are strictly necessary and proportionate to the public health aim, of limited duration, subject to review, and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application. The Cuban government also has an obligation to take effective steps to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and protect people’s right to the highest attainable standard of health.

For a selection of cases documented by Human Rights Watch, please see below.

Arbitrary Detention of Keilylli de la Mora Valle

Keilylli de la Mora Valle, of the pro-democracy groups Patriotic Union of Cuba and Cuba Decide, was arrested on April 12, a family member told Human Rights Watch, when she pulled her face mask down to smoke a cigarette as she walked home from a relative’s house.

At the police station, an officer shoved her and, in protest for her arrest and treatment, she walked to another part of the station and began taking off her clothes, de la Mora Valle said in a video posted on Facebook. A male officer then grabbed her by the neck, put her in a cell, and kicked her on the knee and leg. Images of bruises, posted on Facebook, are consistent with her account.

Officers left her naked and handcuffed, she said, and later took her to a hospital, where a doctor reported no injuries.

De la Mora Valle spent the night at a second police station, in a cell with a woman who was constantly coughing, she said. She was released the next day.

On April 16, a police officer told her by phone that she had to go the police station. There, officers told her she was being accused of “contempt,” “resistance,” “disobedience,” and “spreading an epidemic,” she said. On May 5, an officer appeared at her house with a document announcing her trial on May 7.

De la Mora Valle was not represented by a lawyer during the trial. She was tried through an expedited procedure, known as a “summary” in Cuba, in which defendants can be tried without legal representation. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

She appealed, denying the charges and protesting the severity of the sentence. On May 27, an appeals court issued a two-page ruling, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, rejecting her arguments. Smoking was “not an excuse” for inappropriate face mask usage, the court ruled, and by taking off her clothes, De la Mora Valle showed lack of “respect and modesty.” She deserved a prison sentence, the court ruled, because failing to wear a face mask properly could have “lethal consequences” for others.

De la Mora Valle presented herself on June 4 to serve the sentence. She remains in prison. A relative said he had not been able to visit her because of Covid-19 restrictions, but in phone calls he had learned that in both June and October she had tried to kill herself. She faced “threats and lots of pressure” from prison guards, he said.

Arbitrary Detention of Juan Miguel Pupo Arias

Juan Miguel Pupo Arias, 47, of the Movement of Opponents for a New Republic, has, since 1994, been convicted of multiple crimes. In 2015, then-President Raúl Castro pardoned him, and about 800 others, when Pope Francis visited Cuba.

On April 8, Pupo Arias had just finished eating on a street in the city of San José de las Lajas and was smoking a cigarette, his wife said. An officer approached, telling him to pull up his facemask properly. A carload of other officers arrived and pushed Pupo Arias into the car, saying they were charging him with “spreading an epidemic.”

Pupo Arias was held at a police station until April 10, his wife said, when he stood trial without a lawyer and was sentenced to six months in prison.

His wife, the only person allowed at the trial, said that he was convicted of “spreading an epidemic.” She and Pupo Arias’ son said they were not given a copy of the ruling. But a brief Human Rights Watch reviewed from a prosecutor on a separate case, seemingly referring to the Pupo Arias case, suggests he was convicted for “contempt” instead. The brief mentions unspecified “offenses” against “a public order official who was carrying out his daily duties on the street, relating to the epidemiological situation of Covid-19.”

On June 29, a prosecutor sought to have Pupo Arias tried for new “contempt” and “assault” charges related to an alleged argument between Pupo Arias and prison guards who refused him permission to smoke. The prosecutor’s brief says Pupo Arias, who “talks negatively about the revolutionary process,” tried unsuccessfully to kick a guard.

On September 30 – a few days before Pupo Arias completed his April sentence – a court in San José de las Lajas convicted him of contempt and assault on authorities. Two officers testified that he had “discredited their public image,” calling them “losers,” the ruling indicates, and that he had tried unsuccessfully to kick one of them. Two detainees testified that Pupo Arias did neither, the ruling notes. He was sentenced to four years in prison and remains incarcerated.

Arbitrary Detention of Mileidy and Daniel Salcedo

On April 23, around 3 p.m., Mileidy Salcedo, 24, and her friend María (pseudonym), 20, were walking in Havana when a police officer approached. María had her face mask down because she was drinking a beer.

The officer told another officer to put Maria in a nearby police car and “take her to the station,” Salcedo said.

A police car soon pulled up, and Salcedo began using her phone to video-record. An officer pushed her to the ground and kicked her, Salcedo said, and she kicked the officer back. Salcedo’s video, reviewed by Human Rights Watch, corroborates her being shoved to the ground. The officers drove off with María, leaving Salcedo lying in the street.

Salcedo walked to the nearby police station to complain and to check on María, and an officer arrested her, charging her with “assault,” Salcedo said. Two officers interrogated her for roughly 10 minutes about María’s arrest and Salcedo’s tussle with the police officer.

After holding her for two days and denying requests for a phone call, officers took Salcedo to a prison in Havana. She spent eight days incommunicado, during which an officer once woke her at 2 a.m. for a repeat interrogation. On May 1, she was allowed to make a phone call. On June 26, authorities fined her 500 Cuban pesos (roughly US$19) and released her. She was not told what the fine was for, she said.

Salcedo’s father, Daniel Salcedo, 52, had gone twice to the police station looking for her, a habeas corpus petition reviewed by Human Rights Watch says. Officers denied she was being held there and told him he had no rights. “You are worms,” he recalls an officer saying, using a common expression for government critics in Cuba, “and I won’t talk to you.”

Daniel Salcedo had never been a government critic, he told Human Rights Watch, but after his daughter was detained, he had contacted Berta Soler, of Women in White, a nongovernmental group founded by relatives of political prisoners. Police took him in twice – once in late May and once in early June – for questioning about his links to Soler.

After Mileidy Salcedo was released, an officer went to their house on August 22 without an arrest or search warrant, Daniel Salcedo said, and requested his ID. The officer accused him of hosting a party, which is forbidden by Covid-19 rules.

The officer refused his invitation to check, saying he had to go to the police station. Two more officers, and two men in civilian clothes, appeared, and Mileidy Salcedo began recording.

The police shoved her, saying they did not want to be filmed. Daniel Salcedo shouted “Down with Raúl! Down with communism!” Police put him in a car, and his daughter joined him.

At the station, an officer grabbed Salcedo by the neck and pressed him against a wall. Another hit him on the back and arms. They charged him with “contempt” and “spreading an epidemic.” They detained Mileidy Salcedo too, releasing her the next day.

For three days, Daniel Salcedo shared a five-bed cell with 13 other detainees. The cement beds had no mattresses. His daughter was denied permission to visit and bring him clothes.

He was then transferred to a prison, he said, and held in a crowded cell with 20 others. Officers routinely swore at him, accused him of being a “counter-revolutionary” and threatened to let police dogs attack him, he said. Food was “minimal and rotten,” sometimes infested with bugs, mosquitos, or cockroaches. Officers repeatedly asked him to sign an acknowledgment of responsibility for the crimes, but he refused.

He held a hunger strike, during which a doctor checked him periodically. He ended the strike on the tenth day, when authorities reported a case of Covid-19 in the prison. During the medical checks, a doctor told him there were no medicines in the prison.

After 17 days in prison, he was allowed to see his lawyer for the first time for only 10 minutes before the start of his trial. The court imposed a 1,200 Cuban peso (roughly US$47) fine for “contempt,” but acquitted him of “spreading an epidemic.”

The fine is roughly four times his monthly income. He has not received a copy of the ruling, Salcedo and his lawyer said, and they do not know why he was charged with “contempt.”

Arbitrary Arrests of San Isidro Movement Members, Other Government Critics

On November 26, Cuban police officers detained 14 government critics gathered at the home of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a dissident performance artist.

The critics, many of whom belonged to a coalition of artists known as the San Isidro Movement, had been gathering there since November 16 to organize protests. They called for the release of Denis Solís, a musician sentenced to eight months in prison for “contempt.” On November 17, after police patrols cordoned off the street, the dissidents – who feared arrest if they went outside – announced on social media that they would “quarter” in the house. The next day, several reported that they had begun a hunger strike. Some did not drink water for several days.

On November 26, around 7 p.m., three men in white medical coats, who claimed to be from the Health Ministry, arrived at the house, a video recorded by one of the dissidents shows. The men told one of the critics, the writer and journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez, that he had to re-take a Covid-19 test. Álvarez, who had arrived in Cuba on November 24 from the United States, later told Human Rights Watch that he was quarantining in the house with the protesters, although it is not clear that this was in line with quarantine regulations.

The officials said the Covid-19 test Álvarez took at the Havana airport had an “inhibitory” result, meaning that the lab was not able to obtain a conclusive result. They also said he had broken the rules by quarantining at an address different from the one he had reported. Álvarez feared they would not let him back into the house if he left to take a second test, so he refused to leave and asked to be tested there. The men said they would file a criminal complaint, the video shows, and they left.

About 10 minutes later, police officers forced the front door open, arresting all 14 dissidents and taking their phones, three of them said. Officers told the dissidents that a criminal complaint had been filed against them for “spreading an epidemic.”

Several journalists and other people in Cuba said that Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube stopped working in large parts of Cuba around 7 p.m. that day, the time the dissidents were arrested. The apparent restrictions lasted for an hour and a half, they said.

The officers loaded the detainees into several police vans and drove them to a nearby station, three of them said, leaving the detainees inside the vans for two hours. Eight detainees, including Álvarez, were packed into one van with little ventilation, two of them said. A police officer would open the door from time to time to let air in.

Three officers took Álvarez for Covid-19 testing, he said, although he told the officers he did not consent to the test. He did not resist, he said.

Most of the other detainees were not tested. Officers took most of them to their homes that night, returning most of their phones, but in many cases with the data erased. Police patrols stayed parked in front of the critics’ homes the next day, several said.

The officers took Otero Alcántara to the home of friends and relatives, but he refused to stay, insisting on being allowed to go to his own home, he told Human Rights Watch. Instead, the officers took Otero Alcántara to a police station, holding him for the night, Otero Alcántara said. The next morning, officers put Otero Alcántara in a private car, asking him to look down. They drove him to a private house, where a doctor tested him for Covid-19 and told him he was dehydrated. He tested negative, Otero Alcántara told Human Rights Watch.

Later, the officials took Otero Alcántara to a hospital, although he had not asked to be hospitalized. “You cannot refuse, you have to do what we say,” an official told Otero Alcántara. He was only allowed make a call at around 8 p.m.

Otero Alcántara remained in detention while hospitalized, he told Human Rights Watch, in a two-by-three-meter room with three security officers always in the room with him, even when he used the toilet or received visits. He was not allowed to leave, had no access to a phone, and was only allowed two visits.

In his first day in the hospital, a psychiatrist and a psychologist tried to convince him to end his hunger strike, he said. Security officials also told him they would connect him to an intravenous drip if he refused to eat. The next day, Otero Alcántara decided to end the hunger strike, fearing officials would use the strike as an excuse to keep him hospitalized.

On December 1, around 3 p.m., doctors told him he could leave the hospital. Security officers took him to a police station, where they interrogated him for three hours, he said. The officers threatened him with criminal prosecution, he said. Around 6:30 p.m., they set him free.

Otero Alcántara spent the night at a friend’s house. When he left the house the next morning, officers approached him saying he could not leave, Otero Alcántara said. He refused. They handcuffed him, put him in a police car, and drove him to his mother’s house.

His mother was not there, so they took him to his grandmother’s house. Later that day, Otero Alcántara said a police patrol was parked outside of the house and officers told him he could not leave. Other members of the San Isidro movement were facing similar restrictions, he said.

Threats, Arbitrary Fines Against Raux Denis Rodríguez Rodríguez

On April 23, in the city of Santa Clara, an officer appeared at the home of Raux Denis Rodríguez Rodríguez, 24, a member of various opposition civic groups, and fined him 3,000 Cuban pesos (roughly US$115) for breach of Decree 370, a 2019 law forbidding the dissemination of information “contrary to the social interest.” The officer cited a Facebook post in which Rodríguez said the government was “hiding Covid cases.” The officer said the post “affected the social and economic development of the country,” Rodríguez said.

On September 5, two officers approached Rodríguez and a friend at a Santa Clara park and said they would be fined for failing to wear their face masks properly. Rodríguez’s friend was wearing his correctly, Rodríguez said, but its elastic was torn and the facemask often fell. Rodríguez, who was wearing the facemask correctly, asked why he was being fined.

One officer said Rodríguez had a “duty” to “report” his friend or demand that he wear the mask correctly. The other officer said Rodríguez “had a big mouth,” Rodríguez said. “We should hit him with our batons two or three times,” the officer said.

Rodríguez repeated that he was only asking the reason for the fine. The officers demanded his ID and arrested him and his friend. Rodríguez did not resist arrest, he said, but shouted “down with the communist regime in Cuba!” several times. A video posted on social media corroborates his account.

The officers took Rodríguez and his friend to a police station, where an officer said they would be charged with “contempt in times of Covid-19.” The officer warned that the sentence for contempt could be increased, during the pandemic. Nothing in Cuban law appears to provide for such an increase, and Rodríguez said he felt the officer was trying to intimidate him.

Rodríguez’s friend was fined 100 Cuban pesos (roughly US$4) and let go that day. Rodríguez was held for two days, not allowed to call anyone, fined 200 Cuban pesos, and let go.

Arbitrary Detention, Fines Against Maykel Castillo Pérez

On April 15, around 6 p.m., a police officer appeared at the Havana home of 38-year-old Maykel Castillo Pérez, a member of the San Isidro Movement. The officer wanted to take him to the station but would not say why, Castillo Pérez said, and he refused. Minutes later, four more officers arrived, insisting that he go with them to the station, and Castillo Pérez acquiesced.

There they put him in a small room, with 28 people, Castillo Pérez said. He told the officers he did not want to be there because of the Covid-19 risk – and he tried to leave.

Seven or eight officers beat him with their fists on his back, chest, and legs. One grabbed his right thumb and pressed it back, fracturing it, Castillo Pérez said. The officers then placed him in another room.

They told him he had “violated measures” against Covid-19 and published “lies” on social media about related deaths. He had, days earlier, posted on Facebook that a woman had died on the street from Covid-19, he said. He had learned from people close to the woman – and reported in his post – that a hospital had refused to provide her with medical care.

Officers refused Castillo Pérez’s request to make a phone call, he said, and he spent the night on a concrete bed without a mattress. He was given no food or water during his 24 hours at the station.

The next day, an officer said he had “violated the Facebook rules” and fined him 3,000 Cuban pesos (roughly US$115), under Decree 370.

Transferred to a prison, Castillo Pérez was also charged with “contempt” and “spreading an epidemic.” Officers read to him from a file that included a report by Cuban intelligence agencies, and showed him a folder with some of his recent Facebook posts, highlighting his post on the woman who had died on the street, as well as a description of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel as a “thief.”

During his two days in prison, Castillo Pérez was allowed no phone calls. He was freed on the third day, after an officer told him to stop meeting with government critics and “offending the leaders of the revolution.” Castillo Pérez said he changed his Facebook settings to hide the post after his release.

Castillo Pérez has since been arbitrarily arrested several times, including the November 26 arrest of the 14 government critics.

Harassment of Yordanis Labrada Tellez

On September 3, a neighbor in the town of Songo-La Maya, in Santiago de Cuba, gave Yordanis Labrada Tellez a document that the police had left, summoning him to the station the next day at 9 a.m. Labrada, 44, is a coordinator for the Songo-La Maya branch of the Patriotic Union of Cuba.

At the station, the police chief gave Labrada a notice regarding crimes for which he could be “going to prison any time,” Labrada said. He refused to sign the notice, he said, and officers did not give him a copy.

The chief accused Labrada of “spreading an epidemic,” by having visitors. But Labrada said that people only came to his house to deliver complaints against the government, as it is the Songo-La Maya office of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, though the government considers the organization illegal.

The chief gave Labrada 15 days to find a job or be charged with “dangerousness.” Under Cuban law, people who engage in conduct that contradicts “norms of socialist morality” can be charged with “dangerousness” and detained or supervised by security forces.

On October 29, Labrada was tried, without a lawyer, on charges unrelated to the September 3 summons, said his wife, who was the only one allowed to attend. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison, she said, for failing to pay fines imposed in August and September for placing Patriotic Union of Cuba signs in the streets and a photo of José Daniel Ferrer, the group’s leader, on the door of his house.