CubaBrief: Secretary of State Antony Blinken announces visa restrictions on 8 Castro regime officials for rights violations. 2 Cuban journalists forcibly exiled from Cuba

Today, at 3:15 pm, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted: “The U.S. imposed visa restrictions on 8 Cuban government officials. Those who jail peaceful protesters and sentence them to unjust prison terms must be held accountable. We stand with the Cuban people in their fight for freedom. ” This is welcome news in light of the political proceedings disguised as “trials” in Cuba that have resulted in 20 and 30 year prison sentences for Cubans peacefully exercising their rights. However, much more needs to be done.

On January 4th, at 5:20 a.m., Castro regime officials forcibly expelled independent Cuban journalists Esteban Lázaro Rodríguez López and Héctor Luis Valdés Cocho from Cuba. Esteban, who had been arbitrarily detained since April 30, 2021 for being present at a peaceful protest, was taken from prison to the airport, where he was able to briefly see his mother, but was unable to see his wife or daughters before being forcibly exiled. Héctor Valdés was told that he would have to leave with Esteban, or his friend and colleague would remain in prison, according to an interview with CiberCuba.

Héctor Valdés and Esteban Rodríguez now forcibly exiled in El Salvador

Esteban’s health had been declining in prison. He suffers from asthma, hypertension, diabetes, and congenital heart disease. The Castro regime has a track record of using the denial of medical care to pressure political prisoners to leave the country, or die.

The case of human rights defender Sebastián Arcos Bergnes is a cautionary example. In 1992, Sebastián Arcos was charged with “enemy propaganda” and “inciting rebellion,” he was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison. His real crime was calling for a national dialogue, and having documented human rights abuses in Cuba. Sebastian was transferred to Ariza Prison in Cienfuegos Province, more than 130 miles from Havana, where he was imprisoned alongside dangerous criminals and systematically denied medical attention. In 1993 the regime offered Sebastian a deal: He would be released immediately if he only agreed to leave the island for good. Sebastian rejected the deal, choosing prison in Cuba over freedom in exile.

Sebastián Arcos Bergnes in front of his home on May 31, 1995 following his release

Following an international campaign that included his designation as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience and a request by France Libertés, the organization founded by former French first lady Danielle Mitterrand, Sebastian Arcos was released in 1995. A few weeks after his release, Arcos was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in the rectum, for which he had previously been denied medical care in prison. After a Cuban doctor was fired from his post for diagnosing Arcos, he traveled to Miami for further care. Sebastián Arcos Bergnes died in Miami on December 22, 1997.

Esteban Rodríguez’s options were really a matter of life and death as the case of Sebastian Arcos demonstrates.

The Castro regime has sought for decades and continues to seek today to end the minimal oversight it is subjected to by independent journalists and human rights defenders. The forced expulsion of Héctor Valdés and Esteban Rodríguez is a crime and an outrage in its own right, but even more so when one considers that the objective is to create an environment where the Cuban dictatorship monopolizes information provided to both Cubans and the international community and is able to operate with complete impunity. Cubans are being subjected to a wave of political terror, and Havana does not want any independent voices reporting on it. This cannot be normalized and needs to be widely condemned.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported on December 31, 2021 that there were six journalists imprisoned in the Latin American region, with half (three) jailed in Cuba. The Castro regime has a history of rounding up, jailing journalists, and forcibly exiling journalists. Esteban Lázaro Rodríguez López was deported from Cuba, but independent journalists Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca, and Jorge Bello Domínguez remain jailed in Cuba today for their willingness to report the facts.

The Cuban singer Descemer Bueno premiered this week the song “Tears of Blood”, a denunciation of the totalitarian system on the island, in which prisoner of conscience Maykel Castillo Pérez (El Osorbo) sings, and an image of Esteban Lázaro Rodríguez López appears in the above music video.

There are concerns that Maykel Castillo Pérez (El Osorbo) is suffering from a serious health condition, not receiving adequate care and is being pressured to go into exile by the Castro regime.

Associated Press, January 6, 2022

US hits 8 Cuban officials with travel bans

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the State Department, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Washington. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration has slapped a travel ban on eight Cuban officials it says have been complicit in the repression of opposition protesters and other dissidents.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced visa restrictions on Thursday in a statement that condemned an ongoing crackdown on participants in demonstrations that began last July and called prison sentences handed down to those involved “harsh and unjust.”

The eight officials were not named, but Blinken said all of them are connected to the “detention, sentencing and imprisonment” of peaceful protesters. The U.S. says about 600 protesters across the communist island remain jailed after the July 11 protests despite appeals for their release.

“The United States took steps to enforce visa restrictions in response to Cuban government attempts to deny Cubans their freedom and rights through continued intimidation tactics, unjust imprisonment, and severe sentences,” Blinken said.

The travel bans are the latest actions against Cuba from the Biden administration, which has largely followed former President Donald Trump’s highly critical policies toward the island. In late November, Blinken announced travel bans on nine Cuban officials for similar actions against protesters.

“The United States continues to use all appropriate diplomatic and economic tools to push for the release of political prisoners and to support the Cuban people’s call for greater freedom and accountability,” Blinken said.

In July, thousands of Cubans took to the street in cities across the island to protest shortages of goods and power blackouts, the largest demonstrations against the Communist administration in recent history. Some called for a change in government.

Cuban authorities have said that the United States was the real force behind the protests.

The Biden administration has spoken in support of the Cuban activists and praised the anti-government protests.

Soon after the July protests, the U.S. announced new sanctions on Cuba’s national revolutionary police and its top two officials.

Committee to Protect Journalists, January 6, 2022

CPJ welcomes El Salvador’s acceptance of 2 journalists expelled from Cuba

January 6, 2022 4:30 PM EST

Employees of the San Oscar Romero International Airport, in El Salvador, are seen on March 12, 2020. El Salvador recently allowed Cuban journalists Esteban Rodríguez and Héctor Luis Valdés, who were stranded in the airport, to enter the country. (AFP/Marvin Recinos)

Miami, January 6, 2022 – Salvadoran authorities should continue providing support to Cuban journalists Esteban Rodríguez and Héctor Luis Valdés, and Cuban authorities should cease forcing journalists into exile, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

At dawn on January 4, agents from the Cuban National Revolutionary Police and the Political Police took Valdés from his home in Havana, and took Rodríguez from the city’s Combinado del Este Prison, where he had been held since June 2021 for allegedly taking part in a protest, and brought both journalists to the José Martí International Airport, where they forced them to leave the country, according to a Facebook post by Valdés and multiple news reports.

Rodríguez and Valdés, both contributors to the independent digital outlet ADNCuba, flew to El Salvador, where they planned to take a connecting flight to Nicaragua, a country that does not require visas from Cuban nationals; however, at about 9:30 p.m. on January 4, officials at San Salvador’s San Oscar Romero Airport informed the journalists that Nicaragua had denied their entry, according to those sources.

The journalists remained at the airport until about 2 p.m. on January 5, when El Salvador authorities authorized them to enter the country, according to those sources and several tweets by the General Directorate of Migration and Foreigners of El Salvador.

“We welcome the decision by Salvadoran authorities to admit Cuban journalists Esteban Rodríguez and Héctor Luis Valdés into their country, and provide them with support,” said CPJ Latin America and the Caribbean Senior Researcher Ana Cristina Núñez. “While Cuban authorities continue their vicious practice of forcing nationals into exile, including independent journalists, it is imperative for other nations to step up and offer safe harbor.”

The two journalists have been provided with accommodations and food in El Salvador “while humanitarian assistance is provided and their immigration status is resolved,” according to the Migration and Foreigners Directorate’s tweets.

Both Valdés and Rodríguez conducted video reporting for ADNCuba; Valdés aired videos with the “In Search of Truth” program and Rodríguez for the program “The Neighborhood Speaks,” both of which featured reporting on daily issues affecting Cubans’ lives.

Rodríguez and Valdés are also members of the San Isidro Movement, a local freedom of expression and artistic freedom group, according to those news reports.  

CPJ emailed the Cuban National Revolutionary Police and the Ministry of the Interior for comment, but did not receive any reply. CPJ also called the Nicaraguan Directorate of Migration and Foreigners for comment, but no one answered.

Reuters, January 6, 2022

El Salvador allows two Cuban journalists to enter country

Cuban journalists Hector Valdez and Esteban Rodriguez, both reporters with independent news website ADN Cuba, walks out of El Salvador International Airport upon their arrival to El Salvador as they were expelled from Cuba and denied entry to Nicaragua, in San Luis Talpa, El Salvador, January 5, 2022. Secretaria de Prensa de La Presidencia/Handout via REUTERS

January 6, 2022 – 02:50

By Nelson Renteria

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) – El Salvador on Wednesday said it allowed two Cuban journalists to enter the country after the reporters said they were expelled from the Communist-run island and then barred from entering Nicaragua.

Hector Valdez and Esteban Rodriguez, reporters for independent news website ADN Cuba, said on social media that they arrived at El Salvador’s main international airport on Tuesday night. They intended to board a flight to Nicaragua but were told authorities in Managua had prohibited their entry.

Neither Nicaraguan nor Cuban authorities responded to requests for comment.

Valdez and Rodriguez were associated with the San Isidro Movement, a group of a few dozen artists, writers and activists that had for years protested restrictions in Cuba on civil liberties.

Rodriguez was arrested in April, he said, following a protest in support of jailed San Isidro leader Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, who was on hunger strike at the time.

Cuba’s government has previously accused some of the San Isidro group, including Otero Alcantara, of being mercenaries for the United States. Most of its members have now either left Cuba, are under house arrest or in jail.

On Wednesday morning, the executive director for the Americas of Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco, asked the governments of the region to offer asylum to the two journalists, saying they had been persecuted and expelled by Cuba.

Hours later, top Salvadoran migration and human rights officials met the two journalists at the San Oscar Romero airport, around 40 km (25 miles) outside San Salvador.

“Foreign journalists have been admitted to El Salvador while they receive humanitarian assistance and their migratory situation is resolved,” the General Directorate of Migration said on Twitter, adding that the country will support them with accommodation and food.

The alleged expulsions follow a turbulent 2021 in Cuba.

The largest protests since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution erupted in Cuba in July amid an economic crisis and surge in COVID-19 infections.

Thousands took to the streets, angry over shortages of basic goods, curbs on civil liberties and the handling of the pandemic. Hundreds of protesters were arrested.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana, which has previously criticized Cuba for stifling protests, said on social media it was concerned about the “exile” of the two reporters, calling it a violation of basic human rights.

“This is another method of harassing journalists…they should never have been repressed and they should not have been forced out of Cuba,” the embassy said on Twitter.

The Cuban government has accused the United States of stoking unrest by underwriting protest movements on the island, as well as backing independent media outlets, a claim Washington has denied.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria, additional reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. State Department, January 7, 2021

Visa Restrictions Against Cuban Officials

Press Statement

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

January 6, 2022

Due to harsh and unjust sentences handed down to peaceful protesters, the Department of State today took steps to impose visa restrictions on eight Cuban officials implicated in attempts to silence the voices of the Cuban people through repression, unjust detentions, and harsh prison sentences.

The Department implemented these targeted actions pursuant to Presidential Proclamation 5377, which suspends nonimmigrant entry into the United States of officers and employees of the Cuban government. These eight individuals include Cuban officials connected to the detention, sentencing, and imprisonment of peaceful July 11 protesters. The United States took steps to enforce visa restrictions in response to Cuban government attempts to deny Cubans their freedom and rights through continued intimidation tactics, unjust imprisonment, and severe sentences.

Approximately 600 protesters across the island remain jailed after the July 11 protests, some with worsening health conditions and no access to proper food, medicine, or calls to their loved ones.

These visa restrictions reinforce the U.S. commitment to supporting the Cuban people and promoting accountability for Cuban officials who enable the regime’s affront to democracy and human rights. These actions magnify the impact of four Treasury Department sanctions enacted since July 11 and the Department’s November 30 announcement of visa restrictions on nine Cuban officials connected to repression of November 15 activists. The United States continues to use all appropriate diplomatic and economic tools to push for the release of political prisoners and to support the Cuban people’s call for greater freedom and accountability.