CubaBrief: Updates on two Cuban political prisoners who remain jailed. Two new human rights reports on Cuba

Cuban political prisoner Denis Solis

Cuban political prisoner Denis Solis

The San Isidro Movement, a collective of Cuban artists and intellectuals in Havana, continue to campaign for the freedom of their friend and colleague, Cuban artist Denis Solis, currently imprisoned in Cuba, for insulting a police officer, and his morale remains strong. On January 19, 2021 Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, San Isidro Movement coordinator, along with other activists engaged in a conversation with Sebastien Sigouin, Director of Central America, Cuba and the Dominican Republic at Global Affairs Canada. Below with English subtitles is a video excerpt from that meeting.

Other political prisoners in Cuba are also the focus of international attention. On January 7, 2021, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ( IACHR) “granted precautionary measures in favor of Yandier García Labrada. According to the request, the beneficiary, who is an activist and member of the Christian Liberation Movement, is currently detained in the “El Típico” prison for the crimes of “contempt and public disorder.” He finds himself at risk in the context of his deprivation of liberty as a result of an alleged lack of adequate medical care following beatings received during his detention. Having analyzed the submissions of fact and law presented by the applicants, the Commission considers that the information presented demonstrates prima facie that Mr. Yandier García Labrada finds himself in a serious and urgent situation, given that his rights to life and personal integrity are at risk of irreparable harm.”

Cuban political prisoner Yandier García Labrada

Cuban political prisoner Yandier García Labrada

Two reports released earlier this month provide a broader perspective on the human rights challenges in Cuba today.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) in their World Report 2021 found that “the Cuban government still refuses to recognize human rights monitoring as a legitimate activity and denies legal status to local human rights groups. Government authorities have harassed, assaulted, and imprisoned human rights defenders who have attempted to document abuses.” HRW also cited “the March 2020 report on the human rights situation in Cuba” by “the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)” that “expressed concern regarding the criminalization and arbitrary detention of human rights defenders, absence of spaces for pluralistic political participation, and lack of judicial independence and free speech protections.”  Human Rights Watch documented the crackdown on activists protesting the June 24, 2020 police killing of Hansel E. Hernández on June 30, 2020 by regime officials:

“In June, authorities detained or threatened to detain scores of people to prevent a
demonstration against police violence in Havana. Police harassed at least 80 people, calling them or showing up at their homes to warn them not to attend the protest. In some cases, officers waited outside people’s homes all day on the day of the protest to prevent them from leaving. At least 50 people were arrested while trying to head to protest sites and temporarily detained.”

On December 17, 2020, in the mayor’s office in Miami, Cuban organizations in the diaspora reported that 25 tons of humanitarian assistance that had been designated for 15,000 Cuban families had been confiscated by the regime in Cuba. This was not an isolated incident. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) in their report released on January 12, 2021 Cuba: Freedom of religion or belief January 2021” described how, despite a food security crisis in the island, the Castro regime prevented religious leaders delivering humanitarian assistance to everyday Cubans.

“Food distribution to individuals in need by religious leaders was met with opposition from the government, with reports of confiscated food supplies, customs officials blocking overseas humanitarian aid, threats and even charges against religious leaders for the crime of ‘spreading disease’. Under such circumstances, frustration among Cuban citizens grew as the government increasingly ruled by legal decree to restrict FoRB and other rights.”

Regime apologists, including Fidel Castro in 1986, have often rationalized that the absence of civil and political rights were made up for in the area of social and economic rights with the claim of equality.

“There is revolutionary liberty and there are other liberties which are bourgeois. It’s difficult for me to talk about them to Europeans because bourgeois liberties were born there. In England, France, those countries. You talk of equality, liberty, fraternity. I think only our society can truly speak of equality. There’s no equality between millionaires and beggars. Bourgeois liberties, no. We have two different concepts of freedom. Europeans have one, we have another. Capitalism and socialism are not at all alike. Your political concepts of liberty, equality, justice are very different from ours. You try to measure a country like Cuba with European ideas. And we do not resign ourselves to or accept being measured by those standards.”

What Mr. Castro failed to mention is that in a society where the rule of law and the concept of equality before the law is exercised a beggar has greater protections, that is to say “more equality,” than a poor person in Cuba who is entirely subject to the whims of Mr. Castro who also happened to be worth $900 million dollars in a society where buildings are collapsing and killing children, and despite the official propaganda, many go hungry.

The reality is that without civil and political rights it is much more difficult to account for the fulfillment of social and economic rights. The late Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas observed in 1980, “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.”

Not only the right to scream (freedom of expression), but freedom of the press, the right to peacefully assemble and protest, the right to your own property can bring transparency and accountability to those in power, and more importantly provide protection to those who are not. This has been shown to work the world over where the majority live with the highest quality of life on the planet. It also worked in Cuba when the island had democratic governments that respected all human rights.

Dutch Culture, January 18, 2021

Culture and censorship in Cuba|

A discussion with Raymond Walravens, founder of Go Cuba!, about independent culture, artistic freedom and state censorship in the Cuban arts today.

Cuban rapper and political prisoner Denís Solis

Cuban rapper and political prisoner Denís Solis

18 January 2021

By Errol Boon

Cuba’s cultural sector is on the move. Hundreds of young Cuban artists were out in the streets in November to protest against restrictions of their artistic freedom. The unrest began after rapper Denís Solis was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment for streaming the invasion of his home by a police officer on Facebook. In protest against his arrest, eight members of the San Isidro movement (named for the eponymous district in Havana) began a hunger strike. When the police forcefully ended the protest and arrested several members of the group, hundreds of artists marched through the streets on 27 November. At two o’clock in the morning, following protracted negotiations, the demonstrators and Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas announced a compromise in which the Cuban government agreed to cease the intimidation of independent artists. 

In Cuba, protests and negotiations normally take place in back rooms, via trade associations controlled by the government. The fact that so many people are now publicly speaking out against the restriction of artistic freedom in general is undoubtedly of historical significance. And that the government has shown a readiness to negotiate with the protestors and has even agreed to a compromise is no less remarkable. 

In the same month, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Go Cuba!, an incentive scheme for independent young filmmakers in Cuba, would be renewed for another three years. Raymond Walravens, the founder of Go Cuba! and director of Rialto, a cinema in Amsterdam, brings us up to date on Cuba’s cultural sector and reflects on the main promises and challenges of cultural collaboration with this island country.

Full article ]

https://dutchculture.nl/en/news/culture-and-censorship-cuba

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), January 7, 2021

Resolution No. 5/21
PM 1068/20 – Yandier García Labrada, Cuba

On January 7, 2021, the IACHR granted precautionary measures in favour of Yandier García Labrada. According to the request, the beneficiary, who is an activist and member of the Christian Liberation Movement, is currently detained in the “El Típico” prison for the crimes of “contempt and public disorder.” He finds himself at risk in the context of his deprivation of liberty as a result of an alleged lack of adequate medical care following beatings received during his detention. Having analyzed the submissions of fact and law presented by the applicants, the Commission considers that the information presented demonstrates prima facie that Mr. Yandier García Labrada finds himself in a serious and urgent situation, given that his rights to life and personal integrity are at risk of irreparable harm. Consequently, in accordance with Article 25 of the IACHR’s Rules of Procedure, the Commission requests that Cuba: a) adopt the necessary measures to protect the life and personal integrity of Mr. Yandier García Labrada; in particular, guarantee that his conditions of detention are in conformity with the applicable international standards; b) agree upon the measures to be implemented with the beneficiary and his representatives; and, c) report on the actions taken in order to investigate the alleged events that led to the adoption of this resolution with the aim of preventing their reoccurrence.

https://www.oas.org/en/iachr/decisions/precautionary.asp

Human Rights Watch, January 13, 2021

World Report 2021: Cuba

By Human Rights Watch

The Cuban government represses and punishes dissent and public criticism. Tactics against critics include beatings, public shaming, travel restrictions, short-term detention, fines, online harassment, surveillance, and termination of employment.

In October 2019, Miguel Díaz-Canel was confirmed as president of Cuba, with nearly 97 percent of the votes of National Assembly members. His presidency has seen little change in the government’s human rights policy. Arbitrary detention and harassment of critics continue. Under his government, Cuba has used Decree-Law 370/2018, which came into effect in July 2019 and severely limits free speech, to detain, fine, and harass critics.

Arbitrary Detention and Short-Term Imprisonment

The government continues to employ arbitrary detention to harass and intimidate critics, independent activists, political opponents, and others. From January through August 2020, there were 1,028 arbitrary detentions, according to the Cuban Human Rights Observatory, a Madrid-based human rights organization.

Security officers rarely present arrest warrants to justify detaining critics. In some cases, detainees are released after receiving official warnings, which prosecutors can use in subsequent criminal trials to show a pattern of “delinquent” behavior.

Detention or the threat of detention is often used to prevent people from participating in peaceful marches or meetings to discuss politics. Detainees are often beaten, threatened, and held incommunicado for hours or days. Police or state security agents routinely harass, rough up, and detain members of the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco)—a group founded by the wives, mothers, and daughters of political prisoners—before or after they attend Sunday mass.

In May, activist and lawyer Enix Berrio Sardá was detained for violating Covid-19-related movement restrictions, when he was presenting a constitutional challenge to Decree-Law 370/2018.

In June, authorities detained or threatened to detain scores of people to prevent a demonstration against police violence in Havana. Police harassed at least 80 people, calling them or showing up at their homes to warn them not to attend the protest. In some cases, officers waited outside people’s homes all day on the day of the protest to prevent them from leaving. At least 50 people were arrested while trying to head to protest sites and temporarily detained. Some were accused of “spreading the epidemic.”

On September 8, authorities detained or threatened to detain scores of people across the country to suppress pro-democracy protests planned to coincide with an important religious festival. Journalists and pro-democracy activists reported police stationed outside their homes that morning, and opposition groups reported scores of people detained, including José Daniel Ferrer, founder and leader of the Cuban Patriotic Union, the main opposition party and largest and most active pro-democracy group on the island.

Freedom of Expression

The government controls virtually all media outlets in Cuba and restricts access to outside information. Cuba has the “most restricted climate for the press in the Americas” according to a 2019 Committee to Protect Journalists report.

A small number of independent journalists and bloggers manage to publish articles, videos, and news on websites and social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. The government routinely blocks access within Cuba to many news websites and blogs. In 2019, before a flawed referendum that endorsed a new constitution, it blocked several news sites seen as critical of the government, including 14ymedio, Tremenda Nota, Cibercuba, Diario de Cuba, and Cubanet. Since then, it has continued to block various news websites.

The high cost of—and limited access to—the internet prevents all but a small fraction of Cubans from reading independent websites and blogs. In 2017, Cuba announced it would gradually extend home internet services. In 2019, the government issued new regulations allowing importation of routers and other equipment and the creation of private wired and Wi-Fi internet networks in homes and businesses.

Independent journalists, bloggers, social media influencers, artists, and academics who publish information considered critical of the government are routinely subject to harassment, violence, smear campaigns, travel restrictions, internet cuts, online harassment, raids on their homes and offices, confiscation of working materials, and arbitrary arrests. They are regularly held incommunicado.

In July 2019, Decree-Law 370/2018, on the “informatization of society” took effect, prohibiting dissemination of information “contrary to the social interest, morals, good manners and integrity of people.” Authorities have used the law to interrogate and fine journalists and critics and confiscate their working materials. In March, journalist Camila Acosta was fined in connection with three Facebook posts, including a meme of Fidel Castro.

Between February and September, Cuban authorities harassed Youtuber Ruhama Fernández, who has published videos critical of the government. Authorities repeatedly summoned her for police interrogation and denied her a passport. In April, after summoning Fernández to a police station, officials told her the harassment would cease if she stopped criticizing the government. In September, she received an anonymous phone call threatening to “finish” her off.

Between September 2019 and March 2020, the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantará was detained at least 10 times, often without charge, for performance art pieces in which he wore the Cuban flag while going about daily activities.

In March 2020, Law 128/2019, the National Symbols Law took effect, restricting use of the Cuban flag, seal, and national anthem.

Political Prisoners

Prisoners Defenders reported that as of August, Cuba was holding 75 people who met the definition of political prisoners, as well as 28 others who the group considered were being held for their political beliefs; another 33 who had been convicted for their political beliefs were under house arrest or on conditional release. The government denies independent human rights groups access to its prisons. Local groups believe the actual number of political prisoners is higher, but the restrictions limit their ability to document cases.

Cubans who criticize the government continue to risk criminal prosecution. They do not benefit from due process guarantees, such as the right to fair and public hearings by a competent and impartial tribunal. In practice, courts are subordinate to the executive and legislative branches.

In February, a judge in Santiago convicted José Daniel Ferrer, of the Cuban Patriotic Union, of assault and kidnapping in what activists say was an irregular trial. In April, after six months in pretrial detention, he was sentenced to four years of house arrest.

In April 2020, pro-democracy activist and opposition party member Maikel Herrera Bones was arrested after protesting power cuts in his neighborhood and arguing with a police officer. He was initially charged with disobeying orders, but a week after he was detained  authorities increased the charge to “assault.” In August, Herrera called a fellow activist from prison to report that officials were not providing him with proper treatment for HIV and that he was becoming ill. In September, Herrera told another activist that officials said they would provide proper medical treatment if he stopped complaining about abuses in the prison.

Travel Restrictions

Since reforms in 2013, many people who had previously been denied permission to travel have been able to do so, including human rights defenders and independent bloggers. The reforms, however, gave the government broad discretionary power to restrict the right to travel on grounds of “defense and national security” or “other reasons of public interest.” Authorities have continued to deny exit selectively to people who express dissent.

The government restricts the movement of citizens within Cuba through a 1997 law, Decree 217, designed to limit migration from other provinces to Havana. The decree has been used to harass dissidents and prevent people from traveling to Havana to attend meetings.

In November 2019, authorities told journalist Camila Acosta that she was not allowed to leave the country. An immigration official stopped her when she was trying to board a plane for a human rights event in Argentina.

In August, Ruhama Fernández, the social media influencer, was denied a passport to travel to the United States to receive an award and visit her parents. An official told her she is “regulated” for “reasons of public interest.”

Prison Conditions

Prisons are often overcrowded. Prisoners are forced to work 12-hour days and are punished if they do not meet production quotas, former political prisoners report. Detainees have no effective complaint mechanism to seek redress for abuses. Those who criticize the government or engage in hunger strikes and other forms of protest often endure extended solitary confinement, beatings, restriction of family visits, and denial of medical care.

While the government allowed select members of the foreign press on controlled visits to a handful of prisons in 2013, it continues to deny international human rights groups and independent Cuban organizations access to prisons.

In April, to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading in prisons, the government suspended family visits, restricted the type of food family members could send prisoners, and, in a welcome development, released more than 6,500 people. Independent media have reported cases of detainees being isolated with suspected Covid-19 cases in some prisons. However, as of October 2020, the Ministry of Health had not confirmed any cases of Covid-19 in prisons.

Labor Rights

Despite updating its Labor Code in 2014, Cuba continues to violate International Labour Organization standards it has ratified on freedom of association and collective bargaining. While Cuban law technically allows formation of independent unions, in practice, Cuba only permits one confederation of state-controlled unions, the Workers’ Central Union of Cuba.

Cuba deploys tens of thousands of health workers abroad every year to help tackle short-term crises and natural disasters. The workers provide valuable services to many communities but under stringent norms that violate their rights, including to privacy, liberty, movement, and freedom of expression and association. In 2020, Cuba deployed around 4,000 doctors to help nearly 40 countries respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. They joined an estimated 28,000 Cuban health workers deployed prior to the pandemic.

Human Rights Defenders

The Cuban government still refuses to recognize human rights monitoring as a legitimate activity and denies legal status to local human rights groups. Government authorities have harassed, assaulted, and imprisoned human rights defenders who have attempted to document abuses. In March, two members of the Ladies in White were detained without charge for seven days after attending an International Women’s Day event at the US Embassy in Havana. Authorities then “deported” them to their home city of Santiago, more than 460 miles away. Other members of the group had been detained to prevent them from attending the event.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The 2019 constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. However, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people suffer violence and discrimination, particularly in the country’s interior. In its 2019 report on Cuba, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) noted allegations that police often refuse to investigate anti-LGBT attacks and that LGBT people have been fired or excluded from university education due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Following public protest, the Cuban government removed language from the final draft of the constitution approved in February 2019 that would have redefined marriage to include same-sex couples. The government says that in March 2021, it will introduce a new version of the Family Code, which governs marriage, in the legislature for review, and then put the code to a vote in a referendum.

In May 2019, security forces cracked down on a protest in Havana promoting LGBT rights and detained several activists, media reported. The protest, which was not authorized, was organized after the government announced that it had canceled Cuba’s 2019 Pride parade.

Sexual and Reproductive Rights

Abortion has been decriminalized for all reasons in Cuba since 1965. Cuba is one of the few Latin American countries to have adopted this policy. The procedure is available for free at public hospitals.

Covid-19

As of September 21, Cuba reported 6,305 cases of Covid-19 and 127 deaths. The government reacted quickly when the first Covid-19 cases were confirmed on the island in March, banning tourists, conducting widespread testing and contact tracing, and implementing mandatory facemask rules and stringent movement restrictions enforced with steep fines or even jail time. The resulting slump in tourism, plummeting foreign remittances, and acute supply shortages further stressed an already weak economy, jeopardizing some people’s livelihoods and access to medicines and food.

The government closed schools from March to September. Primary and secondary education was provided through televised classes and an online homework correction service that required an email account from the state internet provider. Some classes were provided in sign language for deaf children. Activists and parents complained that classes were often difficult to follow, and that many people were not able to use the homework correction service given the high cost of and limited access to the internet.

In some cases, the government has used Covid-19 related movement restrictions as an excuse to suppress protests. In June, authorities suppressed a demonstration against police violence by harassing, threatening to detain, and detaining dozens of people.

Key International Actors

In April 2019, the US began allowing lawsuits against companies that benefited from the seizure, during the Cuban revolution, of property belonging to people who are now US citizens. This has led to lawsuits against European and international companies that operate hotel chains and cruise lines in Cuba. The European Union and Canada have denounced the policy.

Between June 2019 and August 2020, the US government imposed new restrictions on US citizens travelling to Cuba, banning cruise ship stops, educational trips, and most flights to the island, except for a limited number to Havana.

In a March 2020 report on the human rights situation in Cuba, the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed concern regarding the criminalization and arbitrary detention of human rights defenders, absence of spaces for pluralistic political participation, and lack of judicial independence and free speech protections. The commission reiterated its call for the US to lift its embargo on Cuba, saying it has negatively impacted human rights.

In April, in a joint statement, various UN experts also called on the US to suspend the embargo, saying trade barriers could obstruct the humanitarian response to Covid-19.

In February, the European Union issued a statement on the case of José Daniel Ferrer calling on Cuba to release all those jailed for the exercise of fundamental rights.

In 2016, the EU signed a Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement with Cuba. The agreement has yet to be fully ratified because Lithuania has refused to approve it, citing human rights concerns. In March 2020, the Lithuanian legislature began to discuss ratifying the agreement, but the discussion was put on hold due to Covid-19.

In October, Cuba was elected to the UN Human Rights Council—its fifth term in the past 15 years. Given the country’s disastrous human rights record, its election was widely criticized by human rights organizations.

The chapter cited the Cuban Center for Human Rights as the source for the number of political prisoners being held by the Cuban government. The text has been corrected to reflect the fact that the figure originally came from the group Prisoners Defenders.

https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/cuba#


Christian Solidarity Worldwide, January 12, 2021

Freedom of religion or belief in Cuba – January 2021

12 Jan 2021

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has intensified existing challenges in the protection and promotion of international human rights. Since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a global pandemic on 11 March 2020, governments across the world announced nationwide lockdowns, using emergency powers to curtail certain fundamental human rights and civil liberties to preserve life and limit the spread of the virus. While international human rights law considers all human rights to be universal, inalienable, indivisible and interdependent, not all human rights are absolute, and limitations can be applied to certain rights and freedoms in exceptional circumstances such as threats to national security or public health. However, it is imperative that any such restrictions are applied in a limited and non-discriminatory manner.

In Cuba, as in other countries, one of CSW’s key concerns was that the pandemic would be exploited by the government to ‘legitimise crackdowns on human rights defenders (HRDs), arbitrary detentions or violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief…[or to] undermine transparency and accountability.’ Unfortunately, this fear was realised. During the pandemic, the Cuban government continued to violate freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) routinely and systematically. While limits on public gatherings due to the pandemic reduced the overall number of direct interactions between religious groups and the Cuban state authorities, the government continued to target the religious sector. In 2020, CSW received 203 documented cases of FoRB violations. While this overall number is lower than the 260 documented cases of FoRB violations in 2019, the decrease in numbers is not because of any government change in policy but rather entirely due to the decision of the Ladies in White to halt their weekly attendance at Catholic Mass and protest march for about seven months because of the pandemic. Their protests resumed in October. As a result, the number of violations against them accounts for a quarter of the total violations, whereas typically this number would be close to nearly half of all cases. 

The situation on the island was particularly unstable in 2020. Prior to the pandemic, Cuba was already experiencing chronic shortages of food, medicine and hygiene supplies, while coping with weak medical services and a rundown and overcrowded housing sector. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified a brewing economic and social crisis, and religious groups have sought to play a civic role in helping with this situation by distributing food and other scarce necessities within their local communities. Despite these efforts to provide assistance to those in need, religious leaders and FoRB defenders continued to report harassment, threats, arbitrary detention, and false charges against them during and after national lockdowns.

Food distribution to individuals in need by religious leaders was met with opposition from the government, with reports of confiscated food supplies, customs officials blocking overseas humanitarian aid, threats and even charges against religious leaders for the crime of ‘spreading disease’. Under such circumstances, frustration among Cuban citizens grew as the government increasingly ruled by legal decree to restrict FoRB and other rights. CSW noted an increase in cases where the right to FoRB was wrongfully restricted using Decree Law 370, a legal decree which effectively curtails freedom of expression on the internet to guard against ‘disseminating information contrary to the common good, morals, decency, and integrity through public data transmission networks’. While the law came into force in July 2019, it has been used increasingly against independent journalists, including those promoting freedom of religion or belief and other human rights.

Click here to read the full report (PDF).

https://www.csw.org.uk/2021/01/12/report/4940/article.htm