CubaBrief: Two Cubans forcibly exiled to Poland, and Cuban woman faces six year prison sentence for nonviolently participating in July 11th protests

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Hamlet Lavastida is interviewed on Polish television shortly after landing at the Warsaw airport. (Courtesy)

Cuban artist and dissident Hamlet Lavastida was arrested on June 26, 2021, and forcibly exiled together with writer and dissident Katherine Bisquet to Poland on September 25, 2021. Part of the price for Lavastida’s release was Bisquet also going into forced exile. Bisquet had been under house arrest.

Neither was allowed to say goodbye to their families.

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Hamlet Lavastida was one of six identified by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience on August 19, 2021, the others are Maykel Castillo Pérez, Thais Mailén Franco Benítez, Esteban Rodríguez, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, and José Daniel Ferrer García. They are prisoners of conscience because they are jailed for their political beliefs.

Thais Mailén Franco, arrested on April 30, 2021, was released on September 21, 2021. The other four remain jailed.

Others remaining behind in Cuba are facing stiff prison sentences for their nonviolent protest. Cuban prosecutors want to sentence Lady in White Sissi Abascal Zamora to a six year prison sentence for nonviolently participating in the July 11th protests.

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Castro regime wants to jail Sissi Abascal Zamora for six years

Scott Simon writing for NPR highlighted the cases of Katherine Bisquet, and Hamlet Lavastida, and that they were ” among at least 55 artists and writers that PEN America says are imprisoned, or under house arrest or surveillance since this summer’s mass protests against the Cuban government.” He also brought attention to the dictatorship’s “new Decree-Law 35 makes online criticism of the state a cybercrime.”

The Castro regime does not release information on arrests, prison population size, and officials lie about it when asked, but other sources give partial estimates together with concrete data. 14ymedio, the press outfit founded by Yoani Sanchez, estimates more than 5,000 detained. Cubalex, a human rights NGO, identified 1,081 detained or missing Cubans, related to the protests that began on July 11th, in their database as of September 27, 2021 at 7:32pm.

Havana Times, September 27, 2021

Banished from Cuba: Hamlet Lavastida and Katherine Bisquet

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Hamlet Lavastida and writer Katherine Bisquet

HAVANA TIMES – On Saturday September 25th, artist Hamlet Lavastida and writer Katherine Bisquet boarded a plane, after suffering prison time, home arrest, blackmail and police harassment for over three months. Escorted by State Security to get all of the paperwork they needed and on their way to the airport, without time to say goodbye to their families and friends, they headed to Poland on a one-way trip.

Lavastida came to Cuba after finishing an artistic residency in Germany, on June 21st. Like everyone who travels to the country, he went to the place where he had to self-isolate because of COVID-19. On the seventh day, State Security went looking for him and took him to their headquarters at Villa Marista, where he was held for three months, supposedly because he was being investigated for Incitement.

According to Bisquet, the political police forced them both into exile as the only way to release Hamlet. “From the very beginning of Hamlet’s unusual arrest, and during the 90 days that he had been jailed under a baseless investigation, I, Katherine Bisquet, writer and activist, have been a target of harassment, coercion, illegal detention (home arrest for 65 days), psychological torture, illegal arrests and threats of being taken to trial by State Security.”

Lavastida is a visual artist that has challenged the Revolution’s discourse with his work and his own symbols, including the figure of Fidel. Bisquet has also become an uneasy person for the Government with her work and activism, especially since she took part in the sit-in at the San Isidro Movement headquarters, in November 2020. Both have suffered repression and harassment, as if they were criminals.

Me leaving the country was the currency for his release,” Katherine explains, and adds that “many people linked to Hamlet, both friends and family, were subjected to this same pressure of blackmail.”

The Cuban government can’t hide its fear of artists. It has been exposed in the world’s eyes: it’s a government that represses, drives into exile and condemns anyone who thinks differently, at its own fancy. Over 800 people are still in Cuban jails, arrested for taking part in the July 11th protests, when so many Cubans took to the streets to demand Freedom.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

Translating Cuba, September 27, 2021

Cuban Prosecutor’s Office Asks for Six Years in Prison for Lady in White Who Participated in 11 July Protests

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Abascal is also a member of the Pedro Luis Boitel Party for Democracy. (Facebook)

14ymedio, Havana, 21 September 2021 — The Municipal Prosecutor’s Office of Jovellanos requested a sentence of six years of deprivation of liberty for the Lady in White Sissi Abascal Zamora after her participation in the demonstrations on July 11 (11J). According to the official document, dated September 15, which 14ymedio had access to before the opposition opened it to the public on its Facebook profile, Abascal, age 23, is accused of the crimes of attack, contempt and public disorder public for protesting in the park of the town of Carlos Rojas, in Matanzas.

The accusation against the young opponent, member of the Pedro Luis Boitel Democracy Party, was lodged by Silvia Martínez Monteroa, the major of the National Revolutionary Police of the municipality of Jovellanos.

The document, received by the activist on Tuesday, specifies that Abascal  is currently in home confinement as a precautionary measure and pending trial. It also points out that during the protests she shouted phrases such as: “Patria y Vida,” “down with the Castros” and “down with the Revolution,” and that she “asked the local people to join her.”

The Prosecutor’s Office also reproaches her for going out to protest “despite knowing the difficult situation the country was going through” due to the “measures to intensify the economic blockade by the United States Government” and “the defamatory campaign organized from that nation to destabilize the economic and social order of the country.”

“They are fabricating these crimes for me, because at no time did I hit officer Silvia Martínez Montero and she is accusing me of having done it. We were the victims. My sister’s head was broken, my mother was hit everywhere and my father was unjustly imprisoned for 47 days,” she denounces.

“I am peaceful. I raise my voice and I will continue shouting what I shouted that day: ’Change’, ’freedom’, ’down with the Castros’,’ down with the dictatorship’, ’Díaz-Canel singao [motherfucker]’, ’freedom for all political prisoners’, ’Long live free Cuba,’ ’patria y vida’, she added.

The Prosecutor’s Office also explains in the document that Abascal placed a white sheet on the branch of a tree in the park that read “Patria y Vida,” while the protesters shouted “phrases against the revolutionary process” and expressions such as “henchmen,” “murderers,” “police officers” and “also banging on pots and pans with sticks.”

At another moment, they claim that the activist “pushed officer Martínez Montero in the chest” and, when she fell to the pavement, “took the opportunity” to hit her “repeatedly with her fists.”

So far, the Cuban government has not recognized official figures of detainees, injuries or deaths as a result of the 11J protests. It only admitted the death of Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, 36, a resident of the Havana municipality of Arroyo Naranjo.

Among the hundreds of anonymous citizens who came out on July 11 to protest were also several of the main figures of Cuban dissidence. who were also detained. Among them, the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, leader of the San Isidro Movement; Félix Navarro, from the Democratic Action Unity Table; and José Daniel Ferrer, from the Patriotic Union of Cuba.

According to a list drawn up by several volunteers under the coordination of the Cubalex legal advice center, of the more than 1,000 detainees from those days, 533 are still in jail.

ARTnews, September 27, 2021

Artist Hamlet Lavastida Released After Three Months of Imprisonment in Cuba

By Alex Greenberger

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Lavastida. Photo Peter Rosemann

Artist Hamlet Lavastida, whose imprisonment in Cuba became a flashpoint for a burgeoning political movement seeking artistic freedom in the country, was released after three months of detainment this past weekend. His girlfriend, the writer and activist Katherine Bisquet, said that she and Lavastida had been exiled to Europe.

Lavastida was arrested toward the end of June after returning from a residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. Cuban authorities accused him of “incitement to commit a crime” because he had stamped local currency with images related to San Isidro and 27N, two activist movements that seek to bring attention to crackdowns on artistic freedom in Cuba. After Lavastida was detained, Amnesty International named him a “prisoner of conscience.”

In his work, Lavastida has spoken critically of Cuban officials and attempted to represent abuses of power by linking the treatment of artists in the country to the political climate of Stalin-era Soviet Union. Speaking to Hypermedia in April, he called Cuba a “police state.”

Lavastida has been involved in the 27N movement, which grew out of a protest held on November 27, 2020. He is not the only artist affiliated with the movement to be detained, however. Tania Bruguera, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, and others have also been arrested by the Cuban police over the past year.

Activists have called for Lavastida’s release. Julie Trébault, the director of a PEN America–run program focused on “imperiled artists,” said in a statement, “The spurious charges imposed on Hamlet—which was arbitrary in every way and lacked any semblance of due process—is emblematic of the lengths to which the Cuban government will go to silence those who defy them, and the special cruelty they reserve for those who, through the power of art, can move others to resist as well. Hamlet has always put the broader cause of artistic freedom and free expression above his own plight.”

Bisquet said on Facebook that she was remaining hopeful for Lavastida and herself. “There is a strength to grow,” she said. “A force that builds up in us.”

NPR, September 25, 2021

Special Series: Simon Says

Opinion: Free Expression Is On The Decline, In Cuba And Elsewhere

September 25, 2021

By Scott Simon

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Memorial to poet José Martí in Old Havana  Keren Su/Getty Images

  • “Six o’clock in the morning. How’s your head?”

    So begins a poem written this month by the Cuban writer Katherine Bisquet. She continues:

“Is it cold in Berlin?

I go to bed this morning – I’m trying to change my habits – with a complaint,

There’s an animal in the front yard that eats the neighbor’s pigeons.

The beast eats everything it sees in its path,

How can I tell it not to eat what doesn’t belong to it?

Are there cypresses there?

Here the ceibas have lost their leaves

Almost everything is lost,

The day, the city, the patience, the memory.”

The imagery in the poem is arresting in all ways.

The poet, Katherine Bisquet, is under house arrest in Havana. Her partner, artist Hamlet Lavastida, is in Villa Marista, an infamous high-security prison. They are among at least 55 artists and writers that PEN America says are imprisoned, or under house arrest or surveillance since this summer’s mass protests against the Cuban government.

Artists living under tyrannies often invent artful ways to express themselves that don’t mention the state by name.

The “Berlin” in the poem may evoke images of imprisonment from an earlier regime in history. “Pigeons” might be a metaphor for free-flying ideas. “The beast” may be Cuba’s Security Police.

The Cuban government’s new Decree-Law 35 makes online criticism of the state a cybercrime.

But in an interview this spring in Hypermedia, an online independent journal, Hamlet Lavastida said, “The Cuban Communist Party is characterized by its relentless emphasis on surveillance and its all-encompassing desire to control and discipline social behaviors that do not conform …” Now, he’s behind bars.

PEN International was founded a century ago to connect writers across the world and support free expression. Julie Trébault, who directs PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection program — which shared the translation of Katherine Bisquet’s poem — told us they’ve found during this pandemic that increasing numbers of artists and dissident voices have been squelched and imprisoned by authoritarian regimes. She cites 35 countries — China, Cuba, Russia, Nicaragua and Iran, but also avowed U.S. allies, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Brazil and Turkey — that she says use emergency powers to suppress free expression.

“Words and images have weight,” she said. “That’s why government, companies and various institutions try to stop them.”

The fear that regimes of blood and iron have of words and images may remind us of the power of art, especially in forbidding times and places.