CubaBrief: On Int’l Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) Day recognizing some Cuban women that risked all for human rights in Cuba. One year after 27N

November 29th is the International Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) Day, and November 27th marked one year since several hundred Cubans called for freedom of expression and dialogue, following the raid on the San Isidro Movement’s headquarters in Havana a day earlier. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement on this one year anniversary.

It has been one year since nearly 300 artists and activists gathered and demonstrated for freedom of expression at the gates of the Ministry of Culture in Havana.  Inspired by the peaceful and unprecedented protests of the San Isidro Movement, the artists called for artistic and personal freedoms in Cuba, and for the Cuban government to take part in a dialogue that would allow the Cuban people to have a voice in determining their own future. The United States stood by the Cuban people in that historic moment and continues to do so today. While officials initially agreed to listen to what the artists had to say, the regime later refused to take part in any dialogue.  The Cuban government’s actions since that day reaffirmed their determination to silence the artists, activists, and independent journalists who continue to bravely advocate for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba.  The regime passed laws restricting free speech online, using them to fine and suspend the telecommunications services of activists and journalists who publish critical facts and opinions.

Secretary Blinken in his statement highlighted detained artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, Maykel Osorbo, and detained activist Jose Daniel Ferrer while recognizing the bullying of “playwright Yunior Garcia, who took part in last year’s negotiations.”

Cuban women have played an important role in the resistance to the dictatorship in Cuba, and are also paying a high price.

Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, a former prisoner of conscience, nonviolence practitioner, and human rights defender, published an OpEd in The Washington Times that is a must read. In it he also described the price that Cuban women are paying for standing up for freedom and their loved ones.

I met a woman who, after learning that her son had been jailed for participating in the protests, walked to the police station to demand his release. She was immediately interrogated and strip-searched, exposing a shirt with the pro-freedom slogan “no more hunger.” The police tore off her shirt, handcuffed and beat her, then forced her to walk almost naked in front of the other officers. “They beat me mercilessly,” she told me. “So many blows that I wet myself.”

During the 11J protests it is known that at least 195 Cuban women were arbitrarily detained, of which at least 67 remain jailed in Cuba today, according to Cubalex. Women have led during these and prior protests and paid a terrible price for their dissent.

Lady in White Sissi Abascal Zamora was sentenced to six years in prison for participating in the 11J protests in the town of Carlos Rojas, in the municipality of Jovellanos, in the province of Matanzas. The 23-year-old activist and member of the Party for Democracy Pedro Luis Boitel has ten business days to appeal. Reports are that a bus full of women dressed as civilians arrived where Sissi was peacefully demonstrating with others on July 11, 2021, and proceeded to beat her and others up, and a bottle was broken over Ms. Abascal Zamora’s head requiring that she receive stitches.

Women have paid a high price for defending human rights in Cuba over several decades. Here is a sampling of some cases over the past 30 years.

Sirley Ávila León was a delegate to the Municipal Assembly of People’s Power in Cuba from June 2005, for the rural area of Limones until 2012 when the regime gerrymandered her district out of existence. The Castro regime removed her from her position because she had fought to reopen a school in her district, but was ignored by official channels and had reached out to international media. Her son, Yoerlis Peña Ávila, who had an 18 year distinguished career in the Cuban military was forced out when he refused to declare his mother insane and have her committed to a psychiatric facility.

Injuries suffered by Sirley Avila Leon in a May 24, 2015 machete attack.

Sirley joined the ranks of the democratic opposition, and repression against her increased dramatically. On May 24, 2015 she was the victim of a brutal machete attack carried out by Osmany Carriòn, with the complicit assistance of his wife, that led to the loss of her left hand, right upper arm nearly severed, and knees slashed into leaving her crippled. Following the attack she did not receive adequate medical care and was told quietly by medical doctors in Cuba that if she wanted to get better that she would need to leave the country.

On March 8, 2016 she arrived in Miami and began a course of treatments over the next six months during which she was able to walk once again although still limited due to her injuries. She returned to Cuba on September 7, 2016 only to find her home occupied by strangers and her attacker free and bragging that he would finish the job. She moved in with her mother and within a short time a camera and microphone were set up across from her mother’s home on a post. The Victims of Communism interviewed her and produced the video below.

On September 20, 2013 human rights defender Yris Tamara Pérez Aguilera briefly described the abuse she had been subjected to by agents of Cuban state security earlier that same year to the 24th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva:

I have been the victim of several acts of aggression on the part of the Cuban authorities, especially by the agents Yuniel Monteagudo Reina and Eric Aquino Yera. They have beaten me into unconsciousness on the pavement, as took place most recently this past March 7 in Santa Clara. The hits to the head, neck, and back have caused me serious health problems that I have not been able to recover from. In addition to beating me, they have threatened me with death on various occasions, these agents have told me that they are going to rape me, and have shown their genitals during arbitrary arrests.

Yris Pérez Aguilera shows cyst, result of state security beatings. (Photo: Yoani Sanchez)

Cuban attorneys Yaremis Flores and Laritza Diversent in their 2013 report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) touched on the institutional nature of the violence upon women in Cuba by the Castro regime:

“The brutality of the police and state security agents, including women members of these bodies, against women dissidents, is supported by the state, which exemplifies the institutionalized violence as a means to repress women opposition activists. Arbitrary detention is one of the methods to prevent them from exercising their rights to speak, associate and demonstrate. In detention centers agents use violence, sexual assault and insults as means of repression. The cells enclosed in unsanitary and sometimes sanitary services have no privacy or are not appropriate for women, even having them share prison cells with men. In some cases, they forced to strip naked or forcibly stripped, obliging them to squat to see if they have items in their genitals and claims that have been reported that they have introduced a pen into the vagina, under the justification of seeking recording objects.”

Due to increasing repression, human rights lawyer, Laritza Diversent was granted political asylum and went into exile on May 4, 2017. She continues to receive threats to the present day from the Cuban government.

Laritza Diversent

Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, one of the founders of the Ladies in White in March of 2003 and its chief spokesperson, was widely admired inside of Cuba and internationally. She fell suddenly ill and died within a week on October 14, 2011 under suspicious circumstances that a Cuban medical doctor described as “painful, tragic and unnecessary.” This took place within days of the Ladies in White declaring themselves a human rights organization dedicated to the freedom of all political prisoners, not just their loved ones.

Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, raises injured arm product of regime assault.

On November 19, 1991 the Cuban poet Mariela Elena Cruz Varela, who peacefully dissented asking for nonviolent change, was assaulted by a mob organized by the dictatorship who tried to force feed the poet her own words. She wrote about the assault in her book, Dios en las cárceles cubanas (God in the Cuban jails):

“They broke my mouth trying to make me swallow the leaflets that members of my group had distributed throughout Havana. Afterwards I spent three days brutally besieged, imprisoned in my own home with my two children, with no water, no electricity, no food, no cigarettes. We heard what the huge speakers never stopped amplifying, allegorical songs to the country, the necessary punishment of traitors, and anyone who wanted to could shout at me, organized, of course, the slogans they pleased: Comrade worm, we are going to execute you by firing squad!”

Maria Elena Cruz Varela 1991

The Washington Times, November 27, 2021

The great Cuban silencing

The government believes that by silencing enough voices, it will stifle courage

OPINION:

HavanaCuba — On July 11, tens of thousands of Cubans poured into the streets in spontaneous protests against their country’s government. It was the largest demonstration on the island in generations, involving people from all walks of life.

Cuban human rights advocates and political dissidents planned to follow up with a nationwide march for freedom on Monday, Nov. 15, the same day that Cuba reopened to international tourism after suspending it during the pandemic.

This time, however, most Cubans stayed home in the face of government pressure, prompting many to wonder whether Cubans have lost their nerve to fight against the communist regime.

But the Cuban government has spent the last four months ruthlessly cracking down on protesters and instilling fear in all Cubans about the consequences of dissent. In the face of such suppression, it is no wonder the protests fell flat.

According to one estimate, more than 500 July 11 protestors are still being detained by the government. Dozens who were apprehended remain unaccounted for. More than a dozen protestors have been sentenced to prison terms in summary trials lacking due process.

But these are only estimates. There is no transparency. The regime has not said how many protestors are in custody, and it often ignores requests for information from family members of the disappeared.

The Cuban government’s secrecy is deliberate. It doesn’t want the public to know how many people are in its custody or what it has done to them. Many whose loved ones have been detained or disappeared are afraid to speak up. The Cuban government does this to instill fear in anyone else who may consider protesting in the future.

The charges against the protestors are often vague — “public disorder,” “defamation,” “illicit protests,” or “disobedience.” Dozens have been accused of breaking COVID-19 restrictions and charged with “propagation of an epidemic” for reasons that obviously have nothing to do with public health.

Cuba’s government officially banned Monday’s protests. State police flooded the streets of Cuba’s large cities at the time the protests were scheduled to occur. Prominent dissidents were arrested before the protests or confined to their homes to prevent them from participating.

This is how Cuba’s government works. Once it identifies you as a threat, it subjects you to arbitrary detentions, beatings, police harassment, surveillance, and searches without probable cause. Many Cuban activists have been forcibly exiled.

Those who speak out publicly risk losing their jobs or having their homes staked out by police. The state-run media might defame them as delinquents and looters, as they did to many peaceful July 11 protestors. If the family of a detainee speaks up, it may prompt an even harsher sentence.

This regime’s brutality is nothing new — it has acted this way since the beginning. In the immediate wake of the Cuban revolution in 1959, thousands of young people were killed for heroically resisting communism. Many shouted: “Long live free Cuba! Live Christ the King!” as they were lined up and shot.

Armando Valladares, the author of Against All Hope, described how as a young bank employee, he had refused to put a sign on his desk supporting the late Fidel Castro that said, “I’m with Fidel.” For this, Valladares was absurdly sentenced to 22 years in prison, many of which he served in solitary confinement.

Likewise, at least one July 11 prisoner is facing a 12-year prison sentence for tearing apart a poster of Mr. Castro. Some incarcerated protestors report being punished for refusing to shout, “long live Fidel!”

I met a woman who, after learning that her son had been jailed for participating in the protests, walked to the police station to demand his release. She was immediately interrogated and strip-searched, exposing a shirt with the pro-freedom slogan “no more hunger.” The police tore off her shirt, handcuffed and beat her, then forced her to walk almost naked in front of the other officers.

“They beat me mercilessly,” she told me. “So many blows that I wet myself.”

Several people have told me their loved ones have been given years or decades-long prison sentences for actions such as breaking a painting of Mr. Castro, or merely for participating in the protest.

To instill even more fear, the government recently enacted a law, Decree 35, that punishes free speech over the internet as “defamation against the country’s prestige.” Decree 35 makes anti-government speech a crime — anyone deemed to “subvert the constitutional order” will be considered a cyberterrorist. A special radio channel has also been created for citizens to inform on anyone who breaks the decree.

Not long after the revolution, the regime set up Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, a network of neighborhood groups across Cuba that it considers the “eyes and ears of the revolution.” The committees enlist ordinary citizens to spy on one another, looking for evidence of “counterrevolutionary activity.” Communist Party members harass and assault government critics in the streets, hurling insults, stones and eggs at them.

I have felt the wrath of the government for most of my adult life, starting more than 30 years ago when I exposed late-term abortion practices and infanticide in the Cuban health care system. I was suspended and later expelled from the Cuban National Health System, and my wife, Elsa, was also expelled from her job as a nurse.

Between 1998 and 1999, I was arrested or detained 26 times for speaking out against the suppression of civil liberties in Cuba.

In 1999, I was sentenced to three years in prison for insulting “the symbols of the homeland,” “public disorder,” and “incitement to commit a crime” because I had hung a Cuban flag sideways on my balcony during a press conference. Just 36 days after my release, I was re-arrested and sentenced to another 25 years, of which I served nine. My story is not uncommon.

The current crackdown is particularly brutal because most of the recent protestors are not activists but ordinary Cubans who have had enough and summoned the courage to stand up and resist.

The government believes that by silencing enough voices, it will stifle that courage, instilling the fear and passivity that have long kept it in power.

Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet is a human rights leader, former prisoner of conscience, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He lives in Havana, Cuba, and can be contacted through his website: OscarBiscet.com.

The Art-tivist Movement in Cuba: One Year and No Dialogue

PRESS STATEMENT

ANTONY J. BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE

NOVEMBER 27, 2021

It has been one year since nearly 300 artists and activists gathered and demonstrated for freedom of expression at the gates of the Ministry of Culture in Havana.  Inspired by the peaceful and unprecedented protests of the San Isidro Movement, the artists called for artistic and personal freedoms in Cuba, and for the Cuban government to take part in a dialogue that would allow the Cuban people to have a voice in determining their own future. The United States stood by the Cuban people in that historic moment and continues to do so today. 

While officials initially agreed to listen to what the artists had to say, the regime later refused to take part in any dialogue.  The Cuban government’s actions since that day reaffirmed their determination to silence the artists, activists, and independent journalists who continue to bravely advocate for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba.  The regime passed laws restricting free speech online, using them to fine and suspend the telecommunications services of activists and journalists who publish critical facts and opinions. 

They imposed harsh penalties on protestors, seeking sentences of up to 30 years in prison for those who participated in July demonstrations.  They repeatedly detained artists and activists, including Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, Maykel Osorbo, and Jose Daniel Ferrer, all of whom remain in prison simply for giving voice to the Cuban people’s desire for freedom.  Last week, nearly a year after the historic gathering in front of the Ministry of Culture, the regime sent security forces and a government-sponsored mob to bully playwright Yunior Garcia, who took part in last year’s negotiations and organized calls for another peaceful protest.

Repeatedly since last year’s historic gathering in front of the Ministry of Culture, Cubans have asked their government to hear their calls for fundamental freedoms, democracy, and respect for human rights. On every occasion, the regime squandered the opportunity for dialogue, doubling down on a bankrupt ideology and failed economic system that cannot provide for Cubans’ basic needs. We commend the Cuban people for continuing to call on their government to listen to their aspirations and to demand respect for universal human rights and fundamental freedoms. We urge the Cuban regime to heed their call, and to allow the Cuban people to shape their own future, free from the threat of government reprisal.

https://www.state.gov/the-art-tivist-movement-in-cuba-one-year-and-no-dialogue/