CubaBrief: Analysis in The Washington Post on Human Rights Watch report “Cuba: Peaceful Protesters Systematically Detained, Abused. CFC provides context

The Washington Post article today on the Human Rights Watch report “Cuba: Peaceful Protesters Systematically Detained, Abused” is a must read and share. It begins with 20-year-old hospital worker Michel Parra who nonviolently took part in the July 11th protests. He was taken by state security, threatened by them that they would shoot him and his family, knocked to the floor, kicked repeatedly over his entire body, and the secret police also beat him with a baton.

One of the chants heard during the July protests was that Cubans had lost their fear. The Castro regime heard this message, and they are seeking to terrorize the Cuban populace into submission.

The crackdown is “clearly an effort to instill fear and make sure this won’t happen again,” said Juan Pappier, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The people who protested because they were tired of not having freedom, of waiting hours in line for bread or milk, they thought they had nothing left to lose. But the government has shown them that they do have something more to lose, that they can end up punished, and live in worse conditions in jail.”

On July 12th Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, (age 36) was shot in the back by regime officials on day two of nationwide protests in Cuba. NGOs placed the number of extrajudicial killings at five during the protests, but the total number remains unknown. Video emerged on July 15th of the aftermath of Diubis being shot in the back and posted over Twitter.

Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, (age 36) shot in the back, killed by regime officials mentioned in HRW report.

Not mentioned in the Human Rights Watch report was the death of opposition activist and Cuban political prisoner Pablo Moya Delá on August 26, 2021 at the Clinical Surgical Hospital in Santiago de Cuba. He was jailed on October 23, 2020 for protesting socioeconomic conditions and overall repression. Beaten, mistreated for months, weakened following a hunger strike and released on probation, after destroying his health, earlier in August 2021 near death.

Pablo Moya Delá: Before October 23, 2020 jailing and after “release” in August 2021.

The Human Rights Watch report was based on interviews with detainees and family members between July and October 2021, and is a must read, but it is also important to remember that the Castro regime does not release data on arrests, or their prison population. The number of 1,000 detained and 500 current political prisoners are partial numbers painstakingly gathered by human rights observers such as CubaLex that have also been threatened for their work.

Regime agents such as Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat based in Havana make the false claim in The Washington Post article that “the police were given strict instructions not to use weapons. We’re not talking about Chile or Colombia, where the police actually kill people.” The big difference is that in Chile and Colombia there is a free press able to report on these abuses. They are not perfect but light years ahead of Cuba, Latin America’s worst media freedom violator. Democracy is in crisis in Latin America thanks, in part, to the destabilizing actions of the Castro regime in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Colombia. However, legal opposition parties that can challenge the party in power when abuses are committed exist in both Chile and Colombia. Opposition political parties are illegal in Cuba. The only legal political party is the Communist Party. Cubans can be punished for capturing images and videos of police abuse under existing Cuban laws. The right to peaceful assembly is respected by law although restricted by police in practice in both Chile and Colombia, but restrictions do not rise to the extreme found in Cuba where in practice there is no right to peaceful assembly.

Response by the Castro regime to a peaceful civic march next month in Cuba should be a wake up call to those who have fallen for the sophistry of Castro regime apologists, and a call to action for the international community.

The Washington Post, October 19, 2021


Stripped naked, beaten, forced to shout ‘Viva Fidel!’: Inside Cuba’s crackdown on dissent

A man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Havana on July 11. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images)

By Anthony Faiola and Ana Vanessa Herrero

Today at 12:01 a.m. EDT

When Cubans took to the streets in July for the biggest challenge to the communist state in decades, Michel Parra joined the electric crowds. “For the first time in my life, I was marching,” the 20-year-old hospital worker said.

But exhilaration turned to fear when men in civilian clothes snatched Parra and his sister from the protest in Matanzas. Hauled to the local Técnico — a feared facility run by Cuba’s state security services — he was taken to an interrogation room. “They were yelling, saying they would shoot me and my family,” he said. “I begged them to stop while they kept calling me a gusano” — a worm, the state slur against anti-communist Cubans.

“They gave me a slap that knocked me to the floor,” Parra said. “I was kicked all over my body. They wouldn’t stop. I was hit in my hands and knees with a baton. For me, it took forever, but maybe it was only 60 seconds. What I know is that I felt pain for 20 days straight.”

One hundred days after the nationwide demonstrations of July 11, when dissidents and ordinary citizens turned out in mass to protest the government’s handling of the coronavirus, energy shortages and the economy, the extent of the police state’s crackdown is becoming clear.

Cubans, broken by pandemic and fueled by social media, confront their police state

Massive sweeps by security forces in the hours and days after the protests saw more than 1,000 people detained. Even now, nearly 500 — the most political prisoners held in Cuba in at least two decades — remain behind bars and locked in murky legal proceedings, according to Cubalex, a nonprofit that has monitored the detentions.

In many cases, detainees were subjected to beatings, humiliation and psychological abuse, according to a sweeping report released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch. It provides the most detailed accounting yet of Cuba’s swift shutdown of dissent.

Several of the accounts were confirmed by The Washington Post through independent interviews with detainees who have been released and family members of those who remain jailed. They include prisoners punished for refusing to shout “long live Fidel!”

Of the 130 prisoners whose cases were investigated, Human Rights Watch reports, 48 sustained some form of physical abuse. Such treatment came mostly during the initial hours or days after detention. After that, many detainees were left to languish in crowded cells with poor sanitation and substandard food.

Little is known about the conditions of the hundreds who remain in jail.

Cubans demonstrate in support the government of Díaz-Canel in Havana on July 11. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

The crackdown hangs over Cubans as another major test of dissent looms: a Nov. 15 protest called by actors, artists and dissidents, backed by Cuban exiles but banned by the Cuban state. Activists and observers warn that the incarceration and abuse that followed the July protests could keep prospective demonstrators indoors next month.

Nov. 15 is the day the government plans to reopen the island to international tourism after months of pandemic restrictions. Another eruption of street protests met with similar repression would be a massive public relations setback for the government as it seeks to lure desperately needed tourism dollars.

The crackdown is “clearly an effort to instill fear and make sure this won’t happen again,” said Juan Pappier, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The people who protested because they were tired of not having freedom, of waiting hours in line for bread or milk, they thought they had nothing left to lose. But the government has shown them that they do have something more to lose, that they can end up punished, and live in worse conditions in jail.”

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The Human Rights Watch report was based on interviews with detainees and family members between July and October. Some who did not suffer physical abuse were victimized by arbitrary detentions or opaque criminal proceedings, the group reported. The detainees included ordinary citizens who joined the protests spontaneously, as well as journalists, activists and well-known dissidents, some of whom were arrested before they could attend the demonstrations.

Cuban officials did not respond to a request for comment. They have denied widespread mistreatment of protesters. The Foreign Ministry has said the majority of the cases related to the protests pending in courts are tied to violations of “public order.”

In August, President Miguel Díaz-Canel conceded that “complex situations” can yield “some excess.” But “there is no one missing or tortured, I tell you responsibly,” he said. “All families were told as soon as possible about the whereabouts of their people.”

Cuba’s Internet comes back on — and reveals scenes of a crackdown

Observers close to the government noted that the force used against protesters in Cuba appeared to be markedly less deadly than that deployed in recent demonstrations in Colombia and Chile. At least 29 people died during nationwide protests in Colombia this year that began in April. At least 31 died in Chile in 2019. Many dozens suffered severe eye trauma from rubber bullets and tear-gas canisters.

There was one confirmed fatality during the Cuban protests. Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, a 36-year-old singer, died during a demonstration on the outskirts of Havana. The Cuban Human Rights Observatory, a nongovernmental organization, has said he was shot in the back by a police officer.

“Some of it could have been heavy-handed, but it’s being enormously exaggerated,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat based in Havana. “The police were given strict instructions not to use weapons. We’re not talking about Chile or Colombia, where the police actually kill people.”

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Nevertheless, several detained protesters described abuse in custody.

Orelvys Cabrera, a dissident journalist, said he was forced to strip naked in front of military officials in an interrogation room after being detained for covering the protests.

“I felt violated,” he said.

For hours, he said, he was berated with glorious tales of communist Cuba and its late founder, Fidel Castro. Later, he said, he was put in a small cell with seven others. “I slept on the floor for 33 days. They fed us rice with dirt. Soup with fat. Breakfasts were only a slice of bread.”

The detainees resisted by singing verses of “Patria y Vida,” the Grammy-nominated song that has become the anthem of Cuba’s dissent. But Cabrera, who was released to house arrest after paying a $40 fine, said they also felt a profound sense of disappointment.

“We cried a lot because we had hoped that day that we would finally be free,” Cabrera said.

Cubans are using social media to air their grievances — and the government is responding, sometimes

Michael Valladares, a construction worker in the western province of Mayabeque, said his wife, María Cristina Garrido, a 39-year-old dissident, was arrested with her sister the morning after the protests. He was not with them at the time, but said witnesses told him the women were struck by police officers during arrest.

Eighteen days later, he said, he managed to see his wife at the Técnico. She described being tossed into a “punishment cell” with feces on the floor after refusing to yell out “Viva Fidel!”

“Every time she refused, she said, a female soldier would hit her so hard she would wet herself,” Valladares said.

Now protesters and authorities are bracing for the Nov. 15 protest, organized by dissidents and artists including the actor and playwright Yunior García. Cuban authorities have rejected the request for a protest permit, claiming the organizers have links to “subversive organizations or agencies financed by the U.S. government.”

Actor and playwright Yunior García, 39, pauses during an Oct. 12 interview at his home in Havana. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

In the weeks since the July protests, Cubans have taken to the freest space in Cuba — the Internet — using biting satire and memes to express discontent. But organizers of next month’s demonstration fear the threat of mass detentions could reduce participation.

“Some of us will turn out despite the intimidation campaign against us, but I do not think it will be like July 11,” said Manuel Cuesta Morúa. The 58-year old activist was detained overnight on July 11 and said he is now under regular observation by security agents.

“Those who will come out will be fewer, maybe hundreds, because of fear of repression,” he said. “Do I think they’re going to arrest us again?


Human Rights Watch, October 19, 2021

Cuba: Peaceful Protesters Systematically Detained, Abused

Arbitrary Detention, Ill-Treatment, Abusive Trials Affect Hundreds

A man is arrested during a demonstration in Havana against the government of Cuba, on July 11, 2021. © 2021 Adalberto Roque/AFP via Getty Images

(Washington, DC) – The Cuban government has systematically engaged in arbitrary detention, ill-treatment of detainees, and abuse-ridden criminal prosecutions in response to overwhelmingly peaceful anti-government protests in July 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. The consistent and repeated patterns of abuses by multiple security forces, in multiple locations across Cuba, strongly suggest a plan by Cuban authorities to repress and suppress the demonstrations.

On July 11 thousands of Cubans took to the streets across the country in landmark demonstrations protesting longstanding restrictions on rights, scarcity of food and medicines, and the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Cuban authorities responded by arresting hundreds of protesters and bystanders, including well-known critics and ordinary citizens. Officers routinely subjected many of them to brutal abuses, including gender-based violence, in detention, and prosecuted dozens in trials that violated basic due process guarantees. At least one protester died. Hundreds remain in prison or under house arrest, including some children under age 18.

“When thousands of Cubans took to the streets in July, the Cuban government responded with a brutal strategy of repression designed to instill fear and suppress dissent,” said Juan Pappier, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Peaceful protesters and other critics have been systematically detained, held incommunicado and abused in horrendous conditions, and subjected to sham trials following patterns that indicate these human rights violations are not the actions of rogue agents.”

Human Rights Watch has documented human rights abuses including arbitrary detentions, ill-treatment in detention, and abusive criminal proceedings against 130 victims in 13 of Cuba’s 15 provinces, as well as in Isle of Youth, a small Cuban island considered a “special municipality.” Between July and October Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone more than 150 people, including activists, victims, their relatives, journalists, and lawyers with direct knowledge of the cases; reviewed case files, fines levied against protesters, press reports and publications by Cuban rights groups; and corroborated photos and videos.

Officials involved in the abuses include members of the intelligence services, known in Cuba as “state security;” the military; the national police; and the special national brigade of the Interior Ministry, known as “black berets.” Government-organized groups of civilians known as “rapid response brigades” were also involved in several beatings. Prosecutors and judges, who lack independence from the government, enabled and took part in abusive criminal proceedings.

On July 11, when the demonstrations began, President Miguel Díaz-Canel urged supporters and security forces to respond to the protests violently. “We call on all revolutionaries to go to the streets to defend the revolution,” he said. “The order to fight has been given.” Several organizations reported countrywide internet outages that day, followed by erratic connectivity, including restrictions on social media and messaging platforms. The Cuban government has in the past used internet restrictions to limit the ability of critics to mobilize.

Human Rights Watch found that officers repeatedly detained peaceful protesters and bystanders, and prevented people from protesting by arresting critics as they headed to the demonstrations. Over 1,000 people were arrested, according to the Cuban rights group Cubalex, with more than 500 still detained and many others under house arrest.

Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, 36-year-old singer, died on July 12 during a demonstration in La Güinera, a low-income neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana. The Cuban Human Rights Observatory, a nongovernmental organization, said that he was shot in the back by a police officer. Nobody has been held accountable for the death.

Human Rights Watch’s research indicates that the July demonstrations were overwhelmingly peaceful. Many protesters chanted “Liberty!” or “Motherland and life,” referencing a song performed by Cuban artists that repurposes the Cuban government’s old slogan, “motherland or death” (patria o muerte), and criticizes repression in the country. In the 130 cases documented by Human Rights Watch, Cuban authorities accused only a handful of detainees of engaging in violence, most often by throwing rocks during protests. In most of these cases, the detainees or their families denied that they engaged in violence, and in all of them the criminal prosecutions were marred by serious due process violations and the sentences sought or imposed by Cuban authorities against the detainees appear excessive.

In most of the cases Human Rights Watch documented, detainees were held incommunicado for days or even weeks, violently arrested, and, in some cases ill-treated during detention. Some were forced to squat naked, apparently deliberately deprived of sleep, brutally beaten, and held in cells without natural light where they say they lost track of time. Others were threatened with reprisals against them or their families for protesting.

Most detainees suffered abusive and repeated interrogations, at times in the middle of the night, in which they were often questioned about the “organization” and “financing” of demonstrations, and threatened with long prison terms.

Gabriela Zequeira Hernández, a 17-year-old student, said she was arrested in San Miguel de Padrón, Havana province, as she was walking past a demonstration on July 11. During detention, she said two female officers made her strip, squat naked five times while she coughed, and pressed on her belly. One of them told her to inspect her own vagina with her finger. Days later, a male officer threatened to take her and two men to the area known as the “pavilion,” where detainees have conjugal visits. Officers repeatedly woke her up at night for interrogations, Zequeira said, asking why she had protested and who was “financing” her.

On July 22 she was sentenced to eight months in prison for “public disorder.” She was only able to see her private lawyer a few minutes before the hearing. On appeal, a higher court allowed her to serve her sentence in house arrest. Zequeira and her family said they have not been able to obtain copies of the rulings.

Many detainees were held in dark, crowded, and unsanitary prisons cells, with little access to clean water or face masks to prevent the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19. Confirmed positive cases of Covid-19 reached some of their highest peaks in Cuba in July and August. Some protesters appeared to have contracted the virus in detention.

Many peaceful protesters have been sentenced through “summary” criminal trials that lacked basic due process guarantees. Protesters were tried jointly, often in groups of more than 10, in largely closed hearings, in which prosecutors frequently accused them of committing vaguely defined crimes, such as “public disorder,” based solely on witness statements by police officers.

The authorities systematically violated detainees’ rights to a fair trial. Officers routinely delayed informing detainees about reasons for their arrest for several days. Detainees’ relatives and lawyers rarely had access to the criminal case files or copies of the rulings, making legal defense virtually impossible. In the few cases in which detainees had legal representation, their lawyers were only allowed to speak with them for a few minutes before the trial.

On August 19, Cuban authorities said that 67 people had been sentenced in connection with the protests. In most cases, peaceful protesters were sentenced to between 10 months and a year in prison, though a few were sent to house arrest after their appeal or were released after paying a fine, Human Rights Watch found.

For selected cases, please see below.

For a full list of cases documented by Human Rights Watch, please click here:

All of the cases Human Rights Watch documented are based on direct accounts by the victim, a relative, or their lawyer. Unless otherwise noted in the text, the accounts below are based on these interviews.