CubaBrief: Messages of defiance from prisons in Cuba. Two Cuban prisoners of conscience observe their third birthdays behind bars

Luis Robles turned 31 years old today, and Luis Manuel Otero turned 36 today. Both are prisoners of conscience jailed in Cuba.

Luis Robles turned 31 years old today, and celebrated his third birthday behind bars for holding up a sign silently in a public space that read ” “Freedom. No more repression. #free-Denis [Solís].” He was arrested and jailed on December 20, 2020, and on March 28, 2022 Luis was sentenced to five years in prison.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara turned 36 years old today while in prison, and like Luis Robles is observing his third birthday behind bars. He was arrested and jailed on July 11, 2021 when he announced that he was heading out to join the mass protests that broke out across Cuba. He was arrested before he could join the protests, and he was also sentenced to five years in prison on June 24, 2022.

Cuban artist and activist Coco Fusco on November 7, 2023 translated a message from Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara to mark the third anniversary of agents of the Cuban dictatorship raiding the San Isidro Movement’s headquarters and shutting down their nonviolent protest. In this statement, he reflects on his plight, and that of the over one thousand political prisoners in Cuba today.

“2023 is coming to an end. More than two years have passed since the 11th of July 2021. There are more than a thousand political prisoners that have been in prison ever since that great day, including myself. At present, we are beings living in limbo without legal rights, with harsher sentences in many cases than those given to murderers, without options or benefits such as parole, despite our disciplined behavior. While we have been imprisoned, we have lost wives, husbands, and family members. We have missed celebrations, births, watching our children grow. We miss our friends …”

He offers a damning indictment of the international community’s impotence or complicity with the dictatorship, but then concludes with a note of defiance and resistance.

“My friends and family urge me to draw on my reserves of mental and physical strength, hoping for a miracle. I for my part, feel that I am still the master of my future. There rises within me a rebellious spirit, that does not allow me to resign myself. I just hope to get through the depression and frustration that comes with the end of the year, surviving in these conditions. I will see what I can come up with to try to alter the reality around me in 2024.”

Prison conditions in Cuba are dire, and lack transparency. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has not had access to inspect Cuban prisons since a brief opening that took place in 1988 and 1989. Prior to 1988 and after 1989 there have been no inspections of Cuban prisons by the ICRC. In contrast, since 2002 there were over a 100 visits to the prison in the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo where Al Qaeda prisoners are housed. It is know that conditions are dire because we learn of prisoners dying due to lack of medical care, beatings, and ill treatment that arises to torture.

Luis Barrios Díaz, a political prisoner in Cuba jailed for participating in the historic 11J protests in July 2021, died on November 19, 2023 at the age of 37 due to a respiratory illness and the absence of medical care in the prison. He had been held at prison 1580 of San Miguel del Padrón in the outskirts of Havana.

It is also known that prison officials use inmates to attack political prisoners, in reprisal of those who speak out against prison conditions.

Luis Frómeta Compte who is 61 years old, with Cuban and German citizenship, is serving a 15 year prison sentence for spontaneously filming protests on his cell phone camera during the 11J protests in Cuba in July 2021.

On December 1, 2023 his family alerted the international community over social media that Luis was the victim of a brutal attack on November 30. 2023 by common prisoners. His daughter Janie Frometa posted the following message on Facebook in Spanish and German translated here to English:

“We just received news from Cuba that dad was brutally beaten by other prisoners, they even held him down so he couldn’t defend himself. Two of Dad’s jailed friends called and informed our family. Unfortunately, we don’t know anything else. Please share this message to highlight the brutality in the prisons.”

Brizaida Abad Igarza, wife of Frómeta Compte, from the Combinado del Este, in Havana, released a video on Facebook with Luis’s sister, Ramona Frómeta Compte, in which they express concern for not knowing his health status after the attack.

Janie Frómeta, in German on Facebook denounced the physical assault against her dad, and called for German authorities to intervene in the case, to ensure that her father returns to Europe. Through tears, she asks for the freedom of all Cuban political prisoners.

On December 2nd over X she gave an update on her father’s plight. Brizaida Abad Igarza, wife of Frómeta Compte and Luis’s sister, Ramona Frómeta Compte are still at the Combinado del Este prison waiting to see Luis Frómeta Compte in person, and ascertain what condition he is in.

“My family continues at the Combinado del Este. They continue waiting to see our father in person. They will not return home until they see my father in person. Right now they need all your support. Therefore I ask you to share this video. Please share this video. Thank you.”

Three days have passed since the attack, and the severity of his injuries remain unknown. Also, the courage of these women to advocate their loved one needs to be understood in the totalitarian dictatorship in Cuba.

The Castro regime’s new Penal Code, which was announced in February 2022, approved in May 2022, and came into force on December 1, 2022 is draconian and tightens the screws of repression further in Cuba. Amnesty International one year ago today reported on its severity calling it “a chilling prospect for 2023,” highlighting the expansion of the death penalty to 23 crimes, and punishing expression for even longer prison sentences.

“In a context where the judiciary continues to be neither independent nor impartial and allows criminal proceedings to be brought against those critical of the government as a mechanism to prevent, deter or punish them from expressing such views, this could result in human rights activists or critical actors being imprisoned for even longer periods of time.” 

Other international human rights organizations have condemned the new penal code, but the repression continues.  

Hyperallergic, November 7, 2023

News

Cuban Artist’s Message of Defiance From Prison

“There rises within me a rebellious spirit, that does not allow me to resign myself,” says Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara ahead of the third anniversary of the Cuban government’s crackdown on the San Isidro movement.

Coco Fusco November 7, 2023

A drawing from Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara’s 2021 series Los payasos (The Clowns), made in a maximum-security prison in Cuba. (courtesy the artist).

Cuban artist and political prisoner Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara has been incarcerated for over two years. The island’s best-known political artist and co-founder of the San Isidro Movement was sentenced to five years for alleged “contempt, defamation, and public disorder” charges. Prior to his sentencing, he had been arrested more than 50 times for his performances, hunger strikes, and street protests between 2017 and 2021. He serves time at Guanajay, a maximum-security prison 30 miles from Havana. Amnesty International named him a prisoner of conscience in 2021.

Ahead of the third anniversary of the Cuban government’s assault on the San Isidro Movement headquarters on November 26, 2020, during which he and several other activists went on hunger strikes to protest the arbitrary arrest of a colleague and the general lack of civil rights, Otero Alcántara has issued a public statement from prison, delivered by phone and transcribed by his friends. I’ve translated the statement, included here in full, from Spanish to English.

* * *

On the Third Anniversary of the Attack on the San Isidro Movement Headquarters in Cuba

November 2023

By Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara’

In 2011, I cast off the shackles of fear and staged my first exhibition “Our Heroes Are Neither Valued nor Respected,” which was inspired by the veterans of the war in Angola. This was my first political manifesto and the starting point of my attempt to usher in change in Cuba, a society paralyzed by fear, apathy, a lack of hope, in which people do not have the power to decide their future. 

On the road that I have traveled since, I have been joined by beings of light, friends with limited economic resources, terminal illnesses, people being cared for by siblings, people with young children, people with differing poetics, people from different social strata and faiths, but all rich in artistic resources. All are full of love for others, and united by their love of freedom. From these exchanges emerged the plan to create an independent #00Biennial, for which we drew on the preceding experiences that the legendary group Omni Zona Franca had with their annual poetry festivals and other endeavors. We organized dozens of concerts and exhibitions. We galvanized a collective movement against Decree 349, the 2018 law that criminalized independent artistic activity that was not authorized by the state. This movement succeeded in politicizing the entire Cuban arts sector, giving rise to more collective action. The San Isidro Movement emerged, and then Hunger Strikers of San Isidro barricaded themselves into the San Isidro headquarters. The Cuban government’s break-in and the arrest of our members, which was documented live on social media, produced an unprecedented public gathering in protest of state power: more than 400 young people carried out a sit-in outside the Ministry of Culture to demand all kinds of freedoms that our people have been denied for so long. More movements and campaigns emerged, such as “Express Yourself,” calling on Cubans to assert their human right to freedom of expression. The San Isidro Movement’s continued protests and hunger strikes forced the rusty wheels of Cuban civil society to begin to turn again. And on Sunday, July 11, 2021, tens of thousands of Cubans took to the streets to demand democracy.

2023 is coming to an end. More than two years have passed since the 11th of July 2021. There are more than a thousand political prisoners that have been in prison ever since that great day, including myself. At present, we are beings living in limbo without legal rights, with harsher sentences in many cases than those given to murderers, without options or benefits such as parole, despite our disciplined behavior. While we have been imprisoned, we have lost wives, husbands, and family members. We have missed celebrations, births, watching our children grow. We miss our friends …

In the past year, international figures that allegedly support human rights visited Cuba, but none of them have been able to change our situation. So, I wonder, after shaking President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s hand, did they ask about us? Will we have to wait another four or five years for another UN General Assembly to demand that Cuba respect our human rights? The top leaders of the European Union have visited Havana, but even this highly significant economic partner failed to move the regime so that the political prisoners would not spend another day without embracing their loved ones in freedom, rather than under the watchful eye of a prison guard. 

Some leaders appear not to care about our plight. The president of Mexico and the vice president of Colombia do not recognize the racist, sexist, classist, and ideological repression that exists in Cuba, preferring instead to openly support the regime. 

And despite abundant evidence and international recognition of the regime’s violations of international law regarding human rights, Cuba has a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, together with Iran. 

So here comes another end of the year, another New Year’s dinner in which we will be absent from the family table. 

What are we looking forward to in 2024? The Olympics? Díaz-Canel announces more misery and repression in the name of the eternal struggle of the regime against “the enemy.” Maybe he will even use the firing squad against us. Another Havana Biennial with a coterie of artists and intellectuals that participate as if nothing were happening in Cuba. With so many problems in the world, Cuba fades away, it does not even exist for most people. 

My friends and family urge me to draw on my reserves of mental and physical strength, hoping for a miracle. I for my part, feel that I am still the master of my future. There rises within me a rebellious spirit, that does not allow me to resign myself. I just hope to get through the depression and frustration that comes with the end of the year, surviving in these conditions. I will see what I can come up with to try to alter the reality around me in 2024.

Coco Fusco is an artist and writer and professor of art at The Cooper Union.

https://hyperallergic.com/855055/cuban-artist-luis-manuel-otero-alcantara-message-of-defiance-from-prison/

From the archives

Amnesty International, December 2, 2022

Cuba: New criminal code is a chilling prospect for 2023 and beyond

Cuba’s new Penal Code, which was approved in May but came into force on 1 December, risks further entrenching long-standing limitations on freedom of expression and assembly and is a chilling prospect for independent journalists, activists, and anyone critical of the authorities, said Amnesty International today.

“Over many decades, the Cuban authorities have consistently used the criminal law — or the threat of it — to silence dissent. The new Criminal Code contains a suite of chilling provisions that give the authorities even greater powers to continue smothering freedom of expression and assembly in 2023 and beyond,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

Cuba’s new 141-page Penal Code replaces the previous one, which dates back to 1987, and contains a number of new and old provisions that are concerning for human rights. It takes effect at a time when many hundreds remain in prison for protesting in July 2021, and after waves of protests in October this year were also repressed.

Here are five alarming aspects of the new Penal Code:

  1. Many provisions of the criminal code that have been used to silence and imprison activists for decades remain

Following the crackdown on protests in July 2021, Amnesty International named six prisoners of conscience — just a few emblematic cases that represent only a tiny fraction of the total number of people who likely deserve the designation. Three of those prisoners of conscience remain imprisoned, while the others, according to the information available to Amnesty International, were forced into exile by the authorities.

All of Amnesty International’s prisoners of conscience, and many hundreds of others criminalized in the context of protests, were charged under several provisions of the Penal Code that have historically been used to silence dissent. These include “public disorder,” “resistance,” and “contempt.” For example, the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was convicted of “public disorder”, “contempt” and “insulting national symbols.” The leader of Cuba’s unofficial political opposition group, José Daniel Ferrer García, who has frequently been held with limited access to the outside world since his detention in July 2021, was charged with “public disorder.”

All these provisions remain in the new Criminal Code, with some changes to the wording, but with increased minimal penalties. For example, “contempt”, “public disorder”, and “resistance” now carry minimum penalties of six months in prison to a year and/or a fine, compared with a minimum of three months to a year in prison and/or a fine under the previous penal code. Similarly, “insulting national symbols”, which includes defiling or other acts that show contempt for the flag or national anthem, now includes a penalty of imprisonment for two to five years or a large fine or both, compared with a penalty of three months to a year or a fine under the previous criminal code.

In a context where the judiciary continues to be neither independent nor impartial and allows criminal proceedings to be brought against those critical of the government as a mechanism to prevent, deter or punish them from expressing such views, this could result in human rights activists or critical actors being imprisoned for even longer periods of time. 

Additionally, Amnesty International believes that public officials should tolerate more criticism than private individuals. The use of criminal defamation laws with the purpose or effect of inhibiting legitimate criticism of government or public officials violates the right to freedom of expression. Amnesty International also opposes laws prohibiting insult or disrespect of heads of state or public figures, the military or other public institutions or flags or symbols (such as lèse-majesté and desacato laws). Amnesty International opposes laws criminalizing defamation, whether of public figures or private individuals, which should be treated as a matter for civil litigation.

2. The new Penal Code penalizes anyone who “endangers the constitutional order and the normal functioning” of the government

Article 120.1 of the new law allows anyone who “endangers the constitutional order and normal functioning of the State and the Cuban government” to be punished with imprisoned from four to 10 years. 

According to international human rights law, the right to freedom of expression can only be restricted in very limited circumstances. Any restrictions must meet all elements of a strict three-part test: they must be provided by law, necessary and proportionate for the purpose of protecting national security, public order, or public health or morals, or the rights or reputations of others. Additionally, to prevent abusive impositions of restrictions, there must be an effective appeal process in place to an independent body, or judicial review. Vaguely worded provisions, such as “endangering the constitutional order” and “normal functioning of the State and the Cuban government” are incompatible with international standards and laws on the right to freedom of expression.

3. It criminalizes receipt of funding, further stifling independent journalists and activists 

Article 143 of the new criminal code stands to further stifle the ability of civil society organizations, activists, and independent journalists to operate in the country, by prohibiting any receipt or use of finances that are deemed to “fund activities against the Cuban state and its constitutional order.” Anyone found guilty of being in possession of funds deemed to be used in this way faces a punishment of four to 10 years in prison.

Under international human rights law, the criminalization of human rights defenders based on receiving foreign funding is prohibited. Such restrictions on foreign funding are contrary to the right of association as they constitute an impediment for human rights defenders to perform their duties, as funding is an essential tool for the existence and effective operation of any association.

This new provision is already creating a chilling effect on independent journalists, who according to the NGO Article 19, have been pressured to resign ahead of the new penal code coming into effect.

4. It severely limits freedom of expression online

For the first time, Cuba’s new penal code explicitly allows the authorities to severely limit freedom of expression on social media and creates a range of vaguely worded offences related to “telecommunications, information and communication technologies” which in a context where freedom of expression has historically been squashed by the authorities, risk being abused.

Additionally, under the new law (Article 391.1) anyone who knowingly shares “fake information” (hechos falsos) can face six months to two years in prison or a fine, or both, and is subject to higher penalties, among other things, if the information is shared on social media or in online or offline media. Similarly, anyone who intentionally “offends another person in their honor”, either in writing or drawing or through acts or gestures, can also face six months to a year in prison or a fine, or both. This offence is also considered aggravated if the information is shared on social media.

According to international human rights law, vague and overly broadly worded laws, for example, which prohibit spreading “fake information”, or which penalize a person for offending someone’s “honor”, do not meet the three-part test described above and are incompatible with the right to freedom of expression. 

5. The new penal code retains the death penalty for 23 different crimes

As most countries in the world move towards abolition of the death penalty, Cuba’s new penal code moves against that trend by retaining the death penalty for severe crimes. 

The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception — regardless of who is accused, the nature or circumstances of the crime, guilt or innocence, or method of execution.

“As we approach the end of 2022, hundreds of Cubans remain in prison for peacefully expressing their beliefs, protest continues to be repressed, and we are seeing one of the biggest waves of forced migration out of Cuba in recent history, as people seek to build new lives with greater freedom overseas,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas. “We will be watching the authorities carefully in 2023 and calling on the international community to condemn in the strongest terms abuses of the criminal law to silence dissent.”

Artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was convicted of “public disorder”, “contempt” and “insulting national symbols”. Amnesty International continues to campaign for Luis Manuel’s release and to defend the rights of many others who have been criminalized for being critical of the Cuban authorities.

Sign the petition

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2022/12/cuba-el-nuevo-codigo-penal-presenta-un-panorama-aterrador-para-2023-y-anos-posteriores/