CubaBrief: Silencing Dissent in Cuba is a 65 year practice with thousands of Political Prisoners

Cuban political prisoners in 2024.

Individuals in Cuba continue to be targeted, jailed, and imprisoned for nonviolently exercising their fundamental rights to free expression, assembly, and association.There are now over 1,100 identified political prisoners in Cuba. The current dictatorship in Havana has been systematically violating human rights since 1959.

Red cross barred from entering Cuban prisons for 64 years

In his 1861 book The House of the Dead, Fyodor Dostoevsky stated that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” What does it say about the Cuban dictatorship that it blocked the International Committee of the Red Cross from visiting Cuban prisons for over 64 years?. No visits were permitted between July 1959 and April 1988. After international shaming, the ICRC was given permission to visit Cuban jails for a few months until the end of 1989. After that, there were no further visits.

The U.S. Helsinki Commission’s hearing on political prisoners.

This brief is going out today to coincide with the hearing today “Silenced Dissent: The Plight of Political Prisoners and Search for Accountability” organized by the U.S. Helsinki Commission.
Members of the U.S. Congress established the Helsinki Commission in 1976 responding to activists in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe who saw the Helsinki Final Act as a new opportunity to press governments to improve their human rights records and allow people to communicate more freely despite Europe’s division.
On August 1, 1975, the Helsinki Accords, commonly known as the Helsinki Final Act, were signed. The signing of the Helsinki Accords was a watershed moment for the international community, putting security and human rights at the forefront of diplomacy. Because of the Helsinki Accords, human rights have become a continuous focus in international security discussions involving the United States, the Soviet Union, Canada, and Europe.

How Helsinki impacted on Cuba’s democratic opposition movement

It was not only activists from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that saw an opportunity  in the Helsinki Accords. The Cuban writer and journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner on February 3, 2009 marking 50 years of Communist dictatorship gave a speech in which he outlined the evolution of the Cuban democratic opposition. It was titled  “Cuba, two perspectives: The European Union and Cubans” at the Casa de América in Madrid, Spain in which he mentioned the importance of the  Helsinki Final Act.
During the 1970s, under the distant influence of the civil-rights struggle in the United States and the nonviolent resistance of dissidents in communist Europe, “a slow ideological and strategic evolution began in the ranks of the Cuban democratic opposition. It came to a notable turning point: the rise to power in Washington of President Jimmy Carter and his defense of human rights as the banner of U.S. foreign policy, in the spirit of the Helsinki Accords signed in the mid-1970s.”

“That pacifist and rational atmosphere, which rejected violence and vindicated democratic methods, led some oppositionists to realize that perhaps it was a historic error for Cubans to resort to force to try to solve their political crises. It might have been more sensible, they thought, to follow the road of negotiation and the search for mechanisms of consensus that might save the institutions from the shoals without the need to periodically topple the republican structures. Finally, in 1976, half a dozen opposition Cubans with leftist backgrounds were summoned by professor Ricardo Bofill and founded in Havana the Cuban Committee for Human Righs. The first political organization in the nation’s history to expressly renounce violence as a method of struggle. The group decided to abide by the rule of law to reclaim the rights quashed by the dictatorship. Meanwhile, in exile in Washington, about the same time, Ms. Elena Mederos, former minister in the revolutionary government, and activist and political scientist Frank Calzón, founded Of Human Rights.  They had the same objective: to defend, by peaceful and legal means, persecuted individuals, dissidents and political prisoners in.”

This marked a before and after in the opposition to the Cuban dictatorship. However, the plight of political prisoners continues to be a necessary top priority. Accountability for individuals involved in executing directives from the dictatorship’s oppressive machinery is another.

“The prisoner’s worst nightmare is the thought of being forgotten,” warned Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian prisoner of conscience serving an unjust 25-year sentence. Therefore, the following cases of Cuban political prisoners will be highlighted.

Cuban political prisoners

Latin Grammy award winner Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez

Cuban artist and prisoner of conscience Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez was sentenced to nine years in prison on June 24, 2022. Maykel had been arbitrarily detained since May 18, 2021. He is being held at the maximum-security prison in Pinar del Rio.

In 2018, Cuban officials issued Decree 349, which allowed the dictatorship to arbitrarily restrict art that they do not like. Maykel Osorbo and his fellow artists founded the San Isidro Movement, which staunchly advocated for artistic independence.

Maykel was one of the co-authors of the song Patria y Vida, and won together with the other musicians two Latin Grammys in 2021. He also appeared in the Patria y Vida video that went viral in Cuba, and around the world.

In April 2021, when the dictatorship came to arrest him, friends and neighbors helped him get away. This photo went viral.

Maykel Castillo Pérez in April 2021.

Maykel was profiled by Rolling Stone Magazine on January 6, 2023.

Amnesty International reported on August 1, 2023  that since April 2023 Maykel has been threatened by other prisoners in the facility where he is being held, and that the Cuban authorities have not provided for his safety.

Amnesty International designated Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez a prisoner of conscience.

Nonviolent protestor Luis Robles Elizástegui

On December 4, 2020, Luis Robles Elizastigui was taken into custody for nonviolently holding up a cardboard sign on San Rafael Boulevard in Havana, Cuba, which demanded freedom, an end to repression, and the release of Cuban rapper Denis Solis.

Luis Robles Elizástigui in the midst of his nonviolent protest.

“The accused Luis Robles Elizástegui is sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for the crimes of enemy propaganda and disobedience committed intentionally,” according to a court document dated March 28, 2022.

Luis Robles Elizástigui was in the camp known as El 18, adjacent to Prison 1580, since February 7, 2024 and according to his mother Yindra Elizástigui Jardines told Cubanet the transfer occurred without informing her in advance. He was transferred on June 3, 2024 to the La Lima correctional work camp in Guanabacoa, Cuba.

Luis Robles Elizástigui

However, one need not engage in non-violent freedom of expression to be unjustly imprisoned. Inquiring about the plight of protesters can get you into trouble.

Human rights defenders Felix Navarro, Sayli Navarro Alvarez

Felix Navarro, Sayli Navarro Alvarez, and Sonia Álvarez

Sayli Navarro and her mother joined the Ladies in White movement more than twenty-one years ago, advocating for her father’s release after he was arrested in March 2003 crackdown.

Her dad, Felix Navarro, is currently a member of the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR) board of directors. Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience in 2003.

Both Sayli and Felix are longtime 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  demonstrators imprisoned during the July 11, 2021 protests in Cuba.

Felix Navarro was arbitrarily jailed on July 12, 2021, never released, and taken to prison following a political show trial.

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.

On March 2, 2022 the Cuban dictatorship confirmed the prison sentences against two Cuban human rights defenders.

Félix Navarro Rodríguez, ( then 68 years old), condemned to nine years in prison. His daughter, Sayli Navarro (then 35), was condemned to eight years in prison.

Sayli was taken, with her hands and feet chained, to prison on April 18, 2022.

On March 18, 2023, eleven months later, a recording was made public in which she stated that she had rejected the state security’s offer to go into forced exile in order to be released from prison.

Human rights defender Sissi Abascal Zamora

Sissi Abascal Zamora and other protestors were reportedly beaten up by a bus load of 30-40 women dressed as civilians on July 11, 2021, when they arrived at the location of their nonviolent demonstration. Ms. Abascal Zamora needed sutures after a bottle shattered over her head.

For her involvement in the July 2021 protests in the town of Carlos Rojas, in the municipality of Jovellanos, in the province of Matanzas, Sissi was given a six-year prison sentence. The 23-year-old activist and member of the Party for Democracy Pedro Luis Boitel was given ten business days to appeal, and officials rejected it.

After that, she was the target of violence once more while she was jailed. On April 18, 2024, Cubalex reported that an inmate had set fire to the mattresses in the cubicle holding Sissi Abascal Zamora on April 15.

It was the second time that this had occurred without the authorities of the La Bellotex prison taking effective actions to guarantee the safety of the inmates.

Sissi Abascal Zamora

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara is a visual artist recognized by Time Magazine as an icon in 2021. He was arrested when he tried to go out and join in nationwide nonviolent protests on July 11, 2021. Luis Manuel was unjustly sentenced to five years in prison on June 24, 2022. He has remained jailed following the above mentioned arrest. Luis Manuel  since 2018 has been engaged in a nonviolent dialogue with the Cuban government demanding that artistic freedom in Cuba be respected and expanded.

Co-founder of the San Isidro Movement.

The San Isidro Movement, a dissident group founded by artists in 2018 to protest Decree 349, a dystopian law that further tightened the dictatorship’s grip over the arts in Cuba. Their mission was to campaign against Decree 349 and defend the freedom of expression of artists. Luis Manuel is one of the founders of this movement. His home was the headquarters of the San Isidro Movement.

Amnesty International on four occasions recognized Luis Manuel Otero a prisoner of conscience. The most recent designation was on August 19, 2021.

In an interview with Amnesty International in 2019, Luis Manuel said: “I’m like the tip of the iceberg. We are talking about an endless number of artists in Cuba. [The authorities] come after me, because as I am supposedly the most visible of the youth, activists-artists, they send the message ‘Well, if we lock this one up, look what we can do to you lot.’”

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara on July 11, 2021.

Internationale Gesellschaft für Menschenrechte (IGFM), June 13, 2024
IGFM welcomes accusation by UN experts
In a report, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions states that the Castro dictatorship in Cuba has systematically violated legal procedures in over 1,500 cases. The IGFM condemns the systematic persecution of activists by the Cuban government and calls for the release of all political prisoners.

Systematic injustice for thousands of Cubans

Cuban regime systematically violates due process, including that of the German-Cuban Luis Frómeta Compte

Havana/Frankfurt am Main, June 13, 2024 – Arbitrary deprivation of liberty, political dependence of the judiciary and military courts against civilians are part of the standard repertoire of the Castro dictatorship in Cuba, reports the International Society for Human Rights (IGFM). In a report, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions states that the Castro dictatorship in Cuba has systematically violated legal procedures in over 1,500 cases. The IGFM condemns the systematic persecution of activists by the Cuban government and calls for the release of all political prisoners.

In a recently published indictment, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions identified seven significant violations of due process in Cuba. People are arbitrarily detained for an indefinite period of time, there is no independent legal system, and military courts and summary trials are used against civilians. There are also only state experts and witnesses as sources of prosecution. According to Cuban Law No. 54 – “Law on Associations” – from 1985, the government denies independent associations freedom of assembly.

The IGFM welcomes the indictment and complains about the systematic persecution and criminalization of civil society in Cuba that has existed for decades. The human rights organization calls on the European Union and German foreign policy to work more forcefully for democratic structures in Cuba. The Castro regime is currently receiving Russian warships there, showing its solidarity with the genocidal war of aggression waged by totalitarian Putin’s Russia against Ukraine.

Thousands arrested on July 11, 2021

The imprisonment of 5,000 to 8,000 people on July 11, 2021 has now been scientifically proven by the UN working group based on surveys by Prisoners Defenders (PD). On July 11, 2021, peaceful protests took place throughout Cuba. As a result, thousands of people were arrested, interrogated and imprisoned, including the German-Cuban Luis Frómeta Compte. 520 fully documented cases prove that the Cuban government has enshrined the violation of the right to due process in its legislation and systematically uses this against dissidents and “opponents of the revolution,” reports the IGFM.

Luis Frómeta Compte, now 61, from Dresden, was visiting Cuba when the protests took place. He filmed them for private purposes and was subsequently arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The ISHR, which has its own section in Cuba, has since been campaigning for his release and that of his brother-in-law Aldo Delgado Romero. Other political prisoners include Felix Navarro, board member of the Cuban ISHR section, who was arbitrarily sentenced to nine years in prison in 2022. His daughter Saily Navarro is also imprisoned for political reasons. Both have campaigned for political prisoners and were sentenced to long prison terms for this.