CubaBrief: Reflection on the film Plantados, the Defiant ones still in Cuba’s prisons today, and an alert for the life of Cuban political prisoner Virgilio Mantilla Arango

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Virgilio Mantilla Arango

Cuban political prisoner Virgilio Mantilla Arango sentenced to seven months in prison beginning in December 2020, is sick with COVID-19, and his current health status is unknown. Extra-official information received by human rights activists from Camagüey, Cuba on March 17, 2021 said that Virgilio Mantilla is in serious condition. Officials are keeping him in total isolation, and political police are engaging in other maneuvers preventing activists knowing anything concrete about his true situation.

According to Cuban activist Jiordan Marrero Cruz in a March 18, 2021 article in Diario de Cuba,”Virgilio is imprisoned today because on December 9, 2020 he publicly demonstrated with a white pullover his support for the San Isidro Movement. This resulted in arbitrary arrests with the use of violence by the political police. According to Marrero Cruz, Mantilla Arango’s nonviolent struggle dates back to the year 2000.

Virgilio Mantilla wearing the white t-shirt that got him into trouble with the political police.

Virgilio Mantilla wearing the white t-shirt that got him into trouble with the political police.

The Center for a Free Cuba (CFC) is concerned by the pattern of repression applied to Virgilio Mantilla Arango, and has closely followed his case. On February 18, 2021, Mantilla Arango was transferred to the Kilo 8 Prison, a prison of greater severity that does not correspond to the sentence imposed on him in December. On March 3rd, CFC reported that Mantilla was confined with two common prisoners suspected of having COVID-19. The information was provided by independent journalist Yadisley Rodríguez from Camagüey. On March 7, an inmate from Kilo 8 alerted activist Leticia Ramos Herrería, from Matanzas, that Virgilio had been taken from prison and transferred to the Amalia Simoni hospital sick with COVID, adding that he was also on a hunger strike. On March 13, a Camagüey State Security official identifying himself as “Kevin” took a video to the home of independent journalist Yadisley Rodríguez and two other opposition activists that showed Virgilio eating in the hospital. This caught the attention of activists because the military never gives information of this type unless it is part of a disinformation plan.

CFC staff have seen this method applied on other occasions in the same Kilo 8 prison and the same Amalia Simoni hospital, and the results were the death of political prisoners Orlando Zapata Tamayo in 2010 and Yosvany Aróstegui Armenteros in 2020. This is why we are calling on the international community to support the request of human rights activists to receive truthful information on the health situation of Virgilio Mantilla Arango.

Over the past sixty two years the international community became accustomed to the systemic injustices perpetrated by the Castro dictatorship against prisoners of conscience and political prisoners in Cuba. Between 1959 and 1988 no international organizations were allowed to visit prisons in Cuba. This included the International Committee of the Red Cross.

This was the time of the Plantados. Eusebio Peñalver Mazorra , a former Plantado himself, defined a Plantado “as a person who firmly plants his feet while struggling for freedom and democracy in Cuba.” Eusebio Peñalver opposed the Batista dictatorship, and fought alongside Che Guevara with the rebel army to restore Cuba’s constitutional democracy. “But when Castro hijacked the revolution for himself,” he broke ranks rather than sell his soul “to the same devil that here on earth is Castro and communism.” He took up arms against Castro’s military in the Escambray Mountains, he was captured on October 5, 1960 and spent 28 years in prison, and rejected all efforts by Castro officials to “re-educate” him.

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This was at a time that very few, outside of the Cuban exile community, heard the cries of Cuba’s many political prisoners and many said that “nobody listened.”

Jaie Laplante on March 4, 2021 in an OpEd in The Miami Herald, titled “Miami Film Festival presents audience the city and the world — and you don’t have to leave home” gave a brief synopsis of the dramatic film Plantados:

“Lilo Vilaplana’s ‘Plantados‘ recounts the horrors of torture suffered by political prisoners in Castro’s prisons before their escape to Miami. It’s an epic, muscular production, a sweeping cri de coeur across those generations; the very potency and verve of its style feel like one final plea to younger Miamians to never forget the atrocities that Castro inflicted on so many.”

Lamentably, Mr. Laplante’s optimism in using the past tense “on the atrocities that Castro inflicted,” does not reflect the reality that they are ongoing. It is also not surprising because the International Committee of the Red Cross was last able to visit a Cuban prison in 1989.

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There was a brief moment between 1988 and 1989 after years of long, hard struggle by Cuba’s human rights defenders that the Castro regime’s human rights record was laid bare before the international community. This was not the fruits of detente, or engagement, but a long hard slog to document and expose Havana’s crimes against humanity.

Independent human rights organizations in Cuba have never been legally recognized by the Castro regime. The Cuban Committee for Human Rights was formally established on January 28, 1976 but did not become fully active until 1983 because State Security arrested everyone after it was founded.

Seven years later, in October 1983, in the Combinado del Este prison, several prisoners of conscience with similar aspirations met. The regime committed a mistake that it did not repeat later when it housed imprisoned human rights defenders together, and the Cuban Committee for Human Rights re-emerged where many political conspiracies usually end. It was a small but talented group: Ricardo Bofill, Gustavo Arcos Bergnes, Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz (who was already in the Boniato prison, but kept in contact with the others through family members), the former director of Pabellón Cuba, Teodoro del Valle, the poet René Díaz Almeyda, the diplomat Edmigio López Castillo and Ariel Hidalgo.

Photo taken in Boniato prison in Cuba published in Life Magazine in 1988

Photo taken in Boniato prison in Cuba published in Life Magazine in 1988

The Cuban Committee for Human Rights was able to document human rights abuses and smuggle these reports out of the prisons and out of Cuba reaching the international community. It was their work combined with the diplomatic pressure of the Reagan Administration, and their Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, former prisoner of conscience, Dr. Armando Valladares that on March 8, 1988 the Cuban government was finally called to account for systematically denying access to Cuba’s prisons. On March 11, 1988 Havana invited the United Nations Human Rights Commission to investigate human rights in Cuba. Over the course of the next year not only the UN Human Rights Commission, but also the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were able to enter Cuba and document the human rights violations in the island.

This was the first and the last time these organizations were allowed into Cuba to visit Castro’s prisons was a year later in 1989. Thanks to these visits images, never before seen emerged. Life Magazine in 1988 published the above photo with the following description: “His bread and water left aside, an inmate in Boniato prison, 460 miles from Havana, prepares to push a hand-drawn chessboard across the hall to his opponent, likewise in solitary confinement.” This was the first time photographs had been published of the notorious cell block. These images are reproduced in the new feature film Plantados.

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In 1987 the documentary “Nobody Listened” captured Cuba’s human rights reality combining interviews with former political prisoners, including many Plantados, archival footage of firing squads and other instances of repression. Former prisoners described show trials, extajudicial executions, and cruel and unusual punishment that rose to the level of torture. This is the perfect documentary to see, before going to see the new film Plantados, and provides historical context to the new movie, and is available online and for purchase on Amazon.

Thirty years have passed since the last time the International Committee of the Red Cross was able to visit Cuban prisons. Meanwhile the International Committee of the Red Cross has visited the U.S. Guantanamo detention facility over 100 times since 2001.

The lack of outrage before this reality has turned into a permanent acceptance by too many of the injustice in Cuba that ignores the continuing atrocities being inflicted on Cuban prisoners of conscience today such as Virgilio Mantilla Arango. This also leads to deaths of prisoners of conscience such as Orlando Zapata Tamayo in 2010 and Yosvany Aróstegui Armenteros in 2020. There have been generations of Plantados in Cuba, and they are with us still.

Independent newspapers are still raided and shut down by the 62 year old dictatorship today, like they were by the new regime in 1959. The Committee to Protect Journalists decries it today, but precious little is known about the prisons. Civil Rights Defenders on January 13, 2020 reported that ” approximately 8,400 Cubans currently serve time for ”pre-criminal social dangerousness”. These are people jailed for what they could potentially do in the future. According to a Cuban judge, who spoke out in Spain in January 2020, there are over 90,000 prisoners in Cuba, an island with a population of 11 million people.

Perhaps, this is why when artists shine a light into this dark history audiences appreciate it, and at Miami Dade College’s Miami Film Festival won the “Feature Film Audience Award.”

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Committee to Protect Journalists, March 18, 2021

Cuban police raid newspaper Páginas Villareñas, confiscate equipment and harass staff

March 18, 2021 11:06 AM EDT

Miami, March 18, 2020 — Cuban authorities should return all equipment confiscated from the Páginas Villareñas newspaper, allow it to publish freely, and cease harassing its staffers, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

In the evening of March 14, agents from the National Revolutionary Police and the Political Police detained reporters Yoandy Cuellar and Yunier Pérez at the outlet’s office in the central province of Santa Clara, according to a statement by the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and the Press (ICLEP), and the institute’s general manager, Normando Hernández, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app. 

ICLEP is a local press freedom organization that prints and distributes free newspapers throughout the country, including Páginas Villareñas, according to its website.

Officers took both journalists to the Fifth Unit local police station, where they interrogated them about their work, including how much they were paid, according to that statement and Hernández.

Police then raided the paper’s office and confiscated two printers, two laptops, four cell phones, a tablet, four USB sticks, and paper and ink, according to another statement by ICLEP. With its equipment confiscated, Páginas Villareñas was forced to shut down on March 16, according to Hernández and press reports.

“Cuban authorities must return all equipment confiscated from the Páginas Villareñas newspaper and cease harassing its staff. The newspaper should be able to resume operations immediately and continue providing much-needed information to the Cuban people,” said CPJ Central and South America Senior Researcher Ana Cristina Núñez. “Taking ink and paper from a community outlet is blunt censorship, and should stop at once.”  

On March 15, police detained and interrogated at least four other reporters from Páginas Villareñas, according to the second ICLEP statement, which said that officers raided their homes and threatened the journalists with prison.

“The reporters were questioned and terrified by the political police, they are locked inside their homes and have given up on continuing to work,” Hernández told CPJ. All those detained and interrogated were released on the same day, and were given written warnings stating that they were illegally engaging in journalism, according to the ICLEP statements.

“For now, we are forced to shut down the outlet. Unfortunately, we do not have the economic resources to replenish what the regime has stolen. We are leaving an entire community voiceless,” Hernández said.

Since February 24, dozens of ICLEP employees have been unable to connect to the internet on their mobile phones, as CPJ has documented. Hernández told CPJ that the organization’s connectivity issues have not been resolved.

CPJ emailed the Cuban National Revolutionary Police and the Ministry of the Interior for comment, but did not receive any replies.

From the Archives

Reuters, February 5, 2009

Cuba urged at U.N. to release political prisoners

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, Feb 5 (Reuters) – Cuba was challenged on Thursday by Western countries to release its political prisoners and allow full freedom of expression, but allies including Russia and China closed ranks with the Communist country.

Cuba was in the dock at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which began regular reviews of all U.N. members last June in a bid to avoid charges of selectivity.

The United States, mired in a four-decade-old feud with Cuba, did not address the forum during the one-day review.

But Britain, Canada and Israel — all close U.S. allies — raised the issue of political prisoners and prison conditions in Cuba. Havana’s backers praised its human rights record, some blaming the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo for any shortcomings.

“Cuba’s delegation has come to defend the truth. We are open to dialogue,” Justice Minister Maria Esther Reus Gonzalez told the Geneva forum.

“All we ask is to be given full respect and objectivity which should be the hallmark of this process.”

Cuba had a system of “participatory democracy” which recognises freedoms of religion and opinion, Reus said.

Its prison system meets at least minimum standards, she said, adding: “Inmates can present complaints or petitions to authorities.”

Cuba had recently invited the U.N. special investigator on torture, Manfred Nowak, to visit this year, she noted.

France called for Cuba to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to make regular visits to detainees. The neutral humanitarian agency last visited a Cuban-run prison in 1989, according to an ICRC spokesman.

Israeli ambassador Aharon Leshno Yaar questioned the Cuban judiciary’s independence and urged Havana to release “unlawfully imprisoned human rights defenders, journalists, and others”.

Canada, in turn, recognised a decline in the number of political prisoners on the island.

“However, approximately 200 political activists who engaged in peaceful dissent remain imprisoned. Canada recommends Cuba unconditionally release all remaining political prisoners and allow them to reintegrate fully into their communities without prejudice,” Gwyn Kutz, a senior Canadian diplomat, said.

Britain’s ambassador Peter Gooderham said that more than 50 people were still imprisoned among 75 opponents jailed in a 2003 political crackdown ordered by former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

“We are concerned about the conditions under which they are held and that some are in poor health,” he said.

Omar Pernet Hernandez was among the 75 detainees in Cuba who received sentences of up to 28 years, but he was freed on health grounds a year ago after a deal with Spain.

Addressing reporters in Geneva on Thursday, Pernet said that during his earlier jail terms, he saw inmates buried up to their armpits in sugar cane plantations where they were forced to work for 24 hours at a time.

Despite such allegations, Cuba has enjoyed wide support in the 47-member Human Rights Council, which dropped its special investigator into human rights abuses by the communist-run government in June 2007.

The Obama administration is reviewing its policy towards the Council, which the Bush administration had essentially boycotted since last June citing its “rather pathetic record”.

LIFE, April 1988

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THE BIG PICTURE: The Next Move in Cuba

His bread and water left aside, an inmate in Boniato prison, 460 miles from Havana, prepares to push a hand-drawn chessboard across the hall to his opponent, likewise in solitary confinement. This is the first time photographs have been published of the notorious cell block. Political prisoners were held there until 1987, but after international pressure mounted, Fidel Castro’s government moved them to a showcase high-security facility. Common criminals remained. At this month’s meetings of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, the United States is supporting a resolution recommending that outside observers be allowed to investigate reports of unduly harsh conditions in Cuba’s jails. And amid rumors that some 350 inmates would be freed, largely as a public relations countermove, those in Boniato’s six-and-a-half-by-four-foot isolation cells passed their time as best they could.