CubaBrief: Remembering the crackdown on March 18, 2003 that ended a Cuban Spring. Cuban prisoner of conscience Saylí Navarro Alvarez rejects offer of exile.

The crackdown that ended the Cuban spring began 20 years ago today, the massive roundup of dissidents by the Castro regime’s secret police. Their “crimes”? Some had organized a petition drive, legally recognized within the existing constitution; others were independent journalists or human rights activists.

Over a 100 were rounded up, but 75 would be subjected to political show trials and sentenced to lengthy prison terms ranging up to 28 years in prison. Luis Enrique Ferrer García, Jose Daniel’s brother, was handed down the longest sentence because during his trial he invited the judge to sign the Varela Project. Amnesty International recognized them all as prisoners of conscience.

The Cuban dictatorship thought it had crushed the Cuban democratic opposition, but they were wrong.

In the midst of the crackdown emerged a new and formidable force: The Ladies in White. The mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of the 75 Cubans imprisoned, organized into this new movement that began to march through the streets of Cuba following mass on Sundays, organizing literary teas, and strategizing how to nonviolently free their loved ones.

Despite the slanders, death threats, beatings, and broken bones, by 2011 all of the 75 political prisoners, who became known as the “group of the 75” were out of prison. Most were sent into exile but 12 who held out to the end remain in the island and today continue the struggle and the others now outside, press on for a democratic transition in Cuba.

A number of additional dissidents were arrested during or around the time of the crackdown. Amnesty International gathered information on their activities, the circumstances of their arrest and their then current legal status, determining they too were prisoners of conscience. They included: Rafael Ernesto Avila Pérez, Javier García Pérez, Félix Jaime González Martínez, Rolando Jimenes Posada, Rafael Millet Leyva, Miguel Sigler Amaya, Pablo Solis Cubilla and Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

Looking back twenty years ago, there is a documentary that stands out from that period The Spring of Cuba La Primavera de Cuba filmed on the island before and after the crackdown that captures that moment in time filmed by Czech – Chilean journalist Carlos Gonzalez. The names of the prisoner of conscience, their age at the time of arrest, and prison sentences are available online. (Source: Amnesty, 2003).

José Daniel Ferrer García and Félix Navarro Rodríguez, two members of the “group of the 75,” are currently serving unjust prison sentences alongside over a thousand other Cubans.

Prisoner of conscience José Daniel Ferrer García’s house arrest order was revoked, and was sent back to jail in August 2021 to complete an unjust four-year term.

Daughter and father jailed for their defense of human rights.

On March 2, 2022 the Cuban dictatorship confirmed the prison sentences against two Cuban human rights defenders. Félix Navarro Rodríguez, ( age 68 ), condemned to 9 years in prison. His daughter, Sayli Navarro (age 35), was condemned to eight years in prison. Both are long time human rights defenders who have reported on systematic human rights violations in Cuba. They were detained after visiting a police station to learn more about the situation of the nonviolent demonstrators who had been imprisoned during the July 11, 2021 protests in Cuba.

Felix Navarro is a member of the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR) board of directors. He has been arbitrarily jailed since July 12, 2021.  Sayli Navarro became a Lady in White, together with her mom. campaigning for her dad’s release following his arrest in 2003.

Sayli was also detained on July 12th, but was released hours later, and had been staying with her mother, who is in poor health. She has also spoken out against her father’s arbitrary imprisonment. Sayli was taken, with her hands and feet chained, to prison on April 18, 2022. Today, a recording was released of her stating that state security is pressuring her to go into exile in order to get out of prison, and that she rejected their offer.

Earlier this week the Center interviewed Jesús Mustafa Felipe, another of the Group of 75 prisoners of conscience, provided his testimony. Earlier today the Center held a panel discussion with Antonio Diaz Sanchez, José Miguel Martínez Hernández and Regis Iglesias Ramírez of the Christian Liberation Movement. They had also been jailed during the March 2003 crackdown.

The main lessons drawn from these discussions and reflections? The desire of Cubans to live in freedom continues, and Cuban springs will continue to return until a democratic transition to a free society is achieved.

Notes from the Cuban Exile Quarter, March 17, 2023

Remembering two Cuban Springs

Winter arrives

Winter arrived in Cuba in 1959, and its darkest nights continued into 1969 when the Castro regime ended Christmas under the pretext of conducting the 10 million ton sugar harvest. It was supposed to be a temporary measure, but Christmas did not return until 1997.

The Castro dictatorship replaced the family as the primary unit of social organization in Cuba during this darkest of winters. By doing so, it displaced the family and encouraged family members to spy on one another, creating widespread mistrust that persists today.

During this time, the Castro dictatorship’s prison inmates were the keepers of Cuba’s human rights and democratic legacy, which later emerged in 1976 when the Cuban Committee for Human Rights was founded.

First thaw

The international community first learned about their human rights reports through paper scraps they smuggled out of these prisons. The scandal that followed forced the Castro dictatorship 12 years later to allow visits from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch to Cuba and the prisons throughout the island. This thaw lasted between 1988 and 1989.

Many resistance organizations were formed during this time and in the years that followed. One of these organizations was the Christian Liberation Movement, which was founded in 1988.

Over the course of 10 years, this movement discovered ways to mobilize the Cuban people and demand that the communist government uphold its own laws and regulations, which on paper purported to include democratic components but were not observed in fact.

The Brothers to the Rescue shootdown on February 24, 1996, which resulted in the deaths of four human rights advocates, prompted the adoption of the Cuban Democracy and Solidarity Act on March 12, 1996, which tightened sanctions on Havana.

Castro decided that the Pope visiting Cuba would be a good way to obtain favorable coverage for the regime in its efforts to relax or lift sanctions.

When Spring started in December

In the weeks leading up to the first Papal visit to Cuba, the Castro regime relaxed certain restrictions on the Catholic church in December 1997. “The church was granted permission to conduct open-air services and processions. Lay workers were allowed to go door-to-door to inform parishioners of the visit and the church had access to media for the publishing of the Pope’s Christmas message in Granma by allowing a televised speech by Cardinal Ortega, and by providing at the last minute, live coverage of the papal masses.”

The return of Christmas was also supposed to be a temporary measure, in honor of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic visit to Cuba (January 21- 26, 1998) . However, 25 years later Christmas continues to be celebrated in Cuba.

Some have pointed to this Papal visit as the beginning of a Cuban spring, where cracks appeared in the totalitarian edifice of Cuba’s communist dictatorship that over five years, forever changed the island nation.

The Cuban Democratic Directorate published Steps to Freedom analyzing democratic resistance beginning in 1997 with 44 civic actions, saw an increase to 233 civic actions in 1999, following Pope John Paul II’s visit, then 444 in 2000, 600 in 2001, 959 in 2002, and 1,328 in 2003.

The Christian Liberation Movement, founded in 1988, following the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II launched their most ambitious initiative, the Varela Project, named after the Cuban Priest, Felix Varela, who in the 19th century was credited with being the one who taught Cubans how to think. Father Varela sought Cuban independence, and was a fierce opponent of slavery.

On May 10, 2002, carrying 11,020 signed petitions in support of the Varela Project, the Christian Liberation Movement’s Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, Antonio Diaz Sanchez, and Regis Iglesias Ramirez delivered them to the Cuban National Assembly. 

Former President James Carter visited Cuba in May 2002. On May 15th Mr. Carter gave a speech at the University of Havana, where he advocated for the lifting of economic sanctions on Cuba and “called for the Varela Project petition to be published in the official newspaper so that people could learn about it.”

Havana’s response to this nonviolent citizen’s initiative, and to President Carter’s request? Coerced Cubans into signing another petition declaring the Constitution unchangeable and quickly passed it through the rubber stamp legislature.

The Varela Project was never presented for debate before the National Assembly, which violated the regime’s existing laws.

Winter returned in March

Ten months later on March 18, 2003 the secret police began rounding up Cubans who had made the Varela Project possible. Seventy five activists would be put on trial and condemned to long prison terms. Over 40 of them had taken part in the initiative. It was the end of a Cuban Spring, but the democracy movement knew that Spring would return.