CubaBrief: 64 years of prisoners of conscience in communist Cuba: Where is the outrage?

“Never allow the government – or anyone else – to tell you what you can or cannot believe or what you can and cannot say or what your conscience tells you to have to do or not do.” – Armando Valladares, former Cuban prisoner of conscience and Ambassador to the UNHRC.. Spent 22 years in Castro’s prisons.

Selection of the over 1,000 political prisoners jailed today in Cuba. [ Office of Carlos A. Gimenez ]

October 30th is the International Day of Political Prisoners. 49 years ago on October 30, 1974 initiated the idea of marking a day of political prisoners in the Soviet Union with a 24-hour fast. Freedom House in recognition of this day highlighted the cases of several current political prisoners, including two Cubans, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel ‘Osorbo’ Castillo

There are currently over a thousand prisoners of conscience in Cuba. Most were jailed for taking part in nationwide protests in July 2021 demanding freedom, human rights, and an end to dictatorship. Cuban prisoners of conscience have been a reality in Cuba since 1959. Some of them had participated in the struggle against Batista, and made Fidel Castro’s rise to power possible.

Huber Matos, a school teacher, declared himself in opposition to Fulgencio Batista on March 10, 1952 the day that Cuban democracy came under attack. Following the extrajudicial killing of some of his former students he joined the armed struggle and ended up being one of the leaders of the revolutionary insurrection that drove Batista from power early on New Year’s Day 1959.

Huber Matos fought against Batista. Spent 22 years jailed for nonviolent dissent with communist rule.

Less than a year later he would be on trial for his life. What was his crime? Warning Fidel Castro in several private letters, where he tendered his resignation only to have it refused, that communists were infiltrating the revolutionary government. In these letters he plainly stated:

“I did not want to become an obstacle to the revolution and I believe that if I am forced to choose between falling into line or withdrawing from the world so as not to do harm, the most honorable and revolutionary action is to leave.”

Fidel Castro made the letters public generating the crisis and denouncing the charge that communists were infiltrating the government. He ordered Camilo Cienfuegos, another popular revolutionary leader, to arrest Matos. The Castro brothers began to prepare a show trial and the execution by firing squad of Huber Matos for treason.
The revolutionary tribunal was prepared. Fidel Castro spoke to Matos promising that if he confessed to everything that he would not face any prison time and could go home. Matos refused, and as the show trial began and they tried to shut him up – he refused. He went on to speak for more that three hours and concluded his testimony stating: 

“I consider myself neither a traitor nor a deserter. My conscience is clear. If the court should find me guilty, I shall accept its decision – even though I may be shot. I would consider it one more service for the revolution.”  

Revolutionary officers that had been convened at the trial to chant “to the execution wall” instead, moved by his testimony, rose up and applauded Matos. Instead of the firing squad the revolutionary tribunal sentenced him to 22 years in prison in December 1959.

Huber Matos would serve every day of those 22 years suffering beatings and other tortures. 

Labor union organizer Mario Chanes de Armas jailed with Castro by Batista in 1953. For his nonviolent dissent Castro jailed him for 30 years

Mario Chanes de Armas, a regional leader of the Cuban Brewery Workers joined Castro’s efforts to overthrow Fulgencio Batista. Both were jailed by Batista for their anti-regime activities. Mario Chanes took part in the July 26, 1953 assault on the Moncada Barracks and was wounded. He was put on trial with the Castro brothers, and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but was pardoned with them after 22 months.

Mario Chanes trained in Mexico and returned to Cuba on the Granma yacht with the Castro brothers, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara to defeat Batista.
Chanes could have had any position in the new regime, but opted to return to his brewery job. After two years of watching Castro betray their movement, Chanes spoke out against the communist influence in the revolutionary government. Chanes was tried as a counterrevolutionary and in 1961 imprisoned for 30 years.

Over the past sixty four years the international community has become accustomed to the systemic injustices perpetrated by the Castro dictatorship. Between 1959 and 1988 no international organizations were allowed to visit prisons in Cuba. This included the International Committee of the Red Cross. This was at a time that prisons were filled with prisoners of conscience and political prisoners in Cuba.

Ricardo Bofill: human rights defender and prisoner of conscience

Independent human rights organizations in Cuba are not legally recognized by the Castro regime. The Cuban Committee for Human Rights was formally established on January 28, 1976 but did not become fully active until 1983 because State Security arrested everyone shortly after it was founded.

Seven years later, in October of 1983, in the Combinado del Este prison, several prisoners of conscience who had similar aspirations met. Paradoxically, what the regime did was to join together many of those who were already marching along similar paths, and the Cuban Committee for Human Rights eventually re-emerged where many political projects usually end. In truth, there were only seven: Ricardo Bofill, Gustavo Arcos Bergnes (then incommunicado on the ground floor and with whom the others could only speak when they took them out to the prison yard), Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz (who was already in the Boniato prison, but kept in contact with the others through family members), the former director of Pabellón Cuba, Teodoro del Valle, the poet René Díaz Almeyda, the diplomat Edmigio López Castillo and Ariel Hidalgo.

In 1987 the documentary “Nobody Listened” captured the human rights reality in Cuba with interviews with former political prisoners, archival footage of firing squads and other instances of repression. Former prisoners described show trials, extajudicial executions, and cruel and unusual punishment that rose to the level of torture. This in an environment were the international community was not listening.

 However things were about to change on the international front.

The Cuban Committee for Human Rights was able to document human rights abuses and smuggle these reports out of the prisons and out of Cuba reaching the international community. It was their work combined with the diplomatic pressure of the Reagan Administration, and their Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, former prisoner of conscience, Dr. Armando Valladares that on March 8, 1988 the Cuban government was finally called to account for systematically denying access to Cuba’s prisons. 

U.S. Ambassador to the UNHRC Armando Valladares

On March 11, 1988 Havana invited the United Nations Human Rights Commission to investigate human rights in Cuba. Over the course of the next year not only the UN Human Rights Commission, but also the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were able to enter Cuba and document the human rights violations in the island.

This was the first and last time these organizations were allowed into Cuba to visit Castro’s prisons. The lack of outrage turned into a permanent acceptance of injustice in Cuba.

Thirty four years have passed since the last time the International Committee of the Red Cross was able to visit Cuban prisons. Meanwhile the International Committee of the Red Cross has visited the U.S. Guantanamo detention facility over 100 times since 2001.

During the Cuban Black Spring in 2003 over a 100 activists were arrested and 75 of them were subjected to political show trials and condemned to prison terms ranging from 15 to 25 years in prison. A Czech film crew in Cuba filmed and interviewed activists before the crackdown and then interviewed their friends and family members after the show trials.

Out of this crackdown the wives, daughters, and sisters of these activists formed the Ladies in White and began organizing for their freedom. Regular marches, literary teas, and lobbying both the Cuban government and the international community. Some have been jailed, others beaten, and one of the founding leaders, Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, died under suspicious circumstances on October 14, 2011. There are still extrajudicial executions in Cuba by Castro’s secret police. Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, and Harold Cepero were murdered in a state security engineered killings on July 22, 2012, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in their June 9, 2023 report on the merits.

Prisoners of conscience have died in Castro’s prisons while protesting mistreatment at the hands of Cuban officials. This has gone on for decades. Some of the high profile cases stretch out over more than a half century: student leader Pedro Luis Boitel (1972), human rights defender Orlando Zapata Tamayo (2010), UNPACU member Wilman Villar Mendoza (2012) and political prisoner Yosvany Arostegui Armenteros are but a few that have been well documented.

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. issued a prophetic warning in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” when he observed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The international community has paid a price for its acceptance of these continuing injustices. Venezuela is now suffering a human rights crisis, a product of a Cuban occupation and the imposition of these systemic injustices on a new and larger population.

The newest urgent action for a Cuban prisoner of conscience is for Maykel ‘Osorbo’ Castillo.  Below is the Amnesty International urgent action and below it a photograph and description from 1988 in Life magazine describing conditions in the prisons. Six decades and ongoing of prisoners of conscience in Cuba, many of them human rights defenders jailed for their work, is an outrage that must be denounced more vigorously by the international community.

Amnesty International, August 24, 2023

URGENT ACTION

CUBA: PRISONER OF CONSCIENCE MAYKEL OSORBO IN DANGER

Source: Freedom House

Maykel Castillo Pérez, also known as “Maykel Osorbo” is a Cuban musician and prisoner of conscience who has faced constant harassment and arbitrary detentions. On May 18, 2021, state security agents arrested him at his home. In June 2022, he was sentenced to nine years in prison. Since April 2023, there are reports that indicate that he has been threatened by fellow inmates in his detention area, and the Cuban authorities have not ensured his safety.

TAKE ACTION: 

  1. Write a letter in your own words or using the sample below as a guide to one or both government officials listed. You can also email, fax, call or Tweet them. 

  2. Click here to let us know the actions you took on Urgent Action 76.23. It’s important to report because we share the total number with the officials we are trying to persuade and the people we are trying to help.

Miguel Díaz-Canel, President of Cuba

Hidalgo Esq. 6, Plaza de La Revolución, CP 10400, La Habana, Cuba

Email: despacho@presidencia.gob.cu

Ambassador Lianys Torres Rivera

Embassy of Cuba
2630 16th St NW, Washington, DC 20009
Phone: 202-79-8518
Email: recepcion@usadc.embacuba.cu.

Dear President,

I am writing to bring attention to the case of the musician Maykel Castillo Pérez, who has been subjected to unjust detention, harassment and violent threats while in prison.

According to information received by Amnesty International, Maykel has resorted to extreme measures, such as sewing his mouth shut, as a form of protest against the violent threats by fellow inmates and security officers in the prison since April 2023.

His family informed Amnesty International that Maykel’s current health status is a significant concern. He suffers from swollen lymph nodes, and unfortunately, the prison authorities have not provided transparent and trustworthy medical diagnoses, adding to the uncertainty and fear surrounding his well- being.

Amnesty International sent an open letter to your office on May 18, 2023, highlighting the threats Maykel’s had received and asking for his immediate release. Regrettably, as of now, no response has been received regarding this matter.

Maykel Castillo Pérez is a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely for exercising his rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

I strongly urge you to take immediate action and order the unconditional release of Maykel Castillo Pérez. Furthermore, I ask you to protect Maykel from the harassment and threats he is receiving in prison.

Sincerely,

[Your Name] 

Additional information

Maykel Castillo Pérez, more commonly known by his artistic name: “Maykel Osorbo”, is a Cuban musician. He is also one of the authors of the son “Patria y Vida” two times Grammy Latino winner, that has become a protest anthem for its critical view of the Cuban government.

The musician has been subjected to constant harassment by authorities and arbitrarily detained several times. On May 18, 2021, state security agents detained the musician at his home, and for the 10 days following his arrest, refused to provide information on his whereabouts to family and loved ones. In January 2022, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Castillo Pérez had been arbitrarily detained and said the Cuban government should release him immediately.

The UN experts found that Castillo Pérez had been detained for exercising his fundamental rights and had suffered due process violations, including abusive limitations to his right to defend himself. In June 2022, the Popular Municipal Court of Central Havana sentenced Maykel Castillo to nine years in prison. Castillo is still currently in the “5 y Medio” prison, in Pinar del Río, Cuba in poor health with limited access to quality medical care.

Cuban authorities haven’t responded to the request of Castillo Pérez to leave the country with his family. He and his family were approved to travel to the United States at the beginning of 2023.

Since the beginning of April 2023, the organization started receiving reports that Maykel has been harassed and threatened by other prisoners to harm him after authorities installed a camera in the area where he is detained. Maykel made the complaint to the Cuban authorities, who have not yet given him a response to guarantee his safety.

On July 12th, Maykel sewed his mouth shut and tattooed “Patria y vida” (Homeland and life) in protest against the threats to his life from fellow inmates and state security agents that he has been receiving for months. The next day, the authorities removed the stitches from Maykel’s mouth and informed him that, as punishment, he would be denied visits from his family.

He was placed in solitary confinement on July 14th. In his latest call to his friends on July 18th, Osorbo said: “It’s not enough because I have enough strength to keep bleeding. I understand why they repress me, and I will continue to endure. A few days, nine months, or thirty years are not enough, as, in the end, since I was born, you have caused me harm. It’s not enough that they lock me up in a prison, lying to my people, extorting my career. I prefer with great pride to descend in a coffin than to bow (…).”

Since May 2023, Amnesty International have denounced the threats to Maykel’s life, but the Cuban authorities have ignored these calls.

YOU CAN WRITE APPEALS IN: Spanish or English

SEND APPEALS AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, AND NO LATER THAN: November 2, 2023

PREFERRED NAME AND GRAMMATICAL GENDER: Maykel Castillo Pérez ‘Maykel Osorbo’ (male)

https://www.amnestyusa.org/urgent-actions/urgent-action-cuba-prisoner-of-conscience-maykel-osorbo-in-danger-cuba-ua-76-23/

LIFE, April 1988

THE BIG PICTURE: The Next Move in Cuba

His bread and water left aside, an inmate in Boniato prison, 460 miles from Havana, prepares to push a hand-drawn chessboard across the hall to his opponent, likewise in solitary confinement. This is the first time photographs have been published of the notorious cell block. Political prisoners were held there until 1987, but after international pressure mounted, Fidel Castro’s government moved them to a showcase high-security facility. Common criminals remained. At this month’s meetings of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, the United States is supporting a resolution recommending that outside observers be allowed to investigate reports of unduly harsh conditions in Cuba’s jails. And amid rumors that some 350 inmates would be freed, largely as a public relations countermove, those in Boniato’s six-and-a-half-by-four-foot isolation cells passed their time as best they could.