Thinking about Cuba’s 800+ political prisoners on This UN Human Rights Day

The stories we tell ourselves about Cuba—and the regime’s propaganda skills—are blinding many people to the appalling systemic injustice just 90 miles off the Florida coast. 

I hope you’ll read this post about the historic protests and share it if you find it worthwhile. I’d love to know your thoughts on anything here and look forward to hearing from you. 

Thanks for thinking about this with me,

Ana

December 10, 2021

UN Human Rights Day

Most Americans heard something about the country-wide uprising that took place on July 11th, an unprecedented event in post-revolutionary Cuba. Today, approximately 800 known political prisoners are still being held in prisons that Human Rights Watch has described as “horrendous.” Some are already serving sentences of 20+ years after summary trials. Activists and independent journalists (an illegal profession in Cuba) are still under house arrest, arbitrarily detained, their families threatened and harassed. They are defamed on a regular basis across state-controlled media, accused of being mercenaries, traitors, criminals. 

None of this—other than the protests themselves—is new. The Cuban government has a long history of repressing and criminalizing political dissent. It’s considered one of the most repressive countries by human rights and independent journalism watch groups. Since the 1959 revolution, it’s been a single-party socialist-communist state and, except for the last two years, ruled by the Castro family. Somehow, there is still debate about whether Cuba is a dictatorship.

If there was any doubt about the regime’s tolerance for dissent, Article 4 of the 2019 Constitution cleared things up. The socialist system, it states, is “irrevocable,” and citizens have the duty to defend it, with armed combat if necessary, against threats. The document is a marvel of the kiss-and-slap. Almost every right that’s conferred is nullified if exercised in opposition to the government—creating what journalist Yoani Sanchez has described as “political apartheid.”

And yet that Sunday in July, tens of thousands of Cubans simultaneously rose up in overwhelmingly peaceful protests in almost every province in the country. They shouted libertad, down with dictatorship, and some really nasty references to President Miguel Diaz Canel’s body parts. 

I’d been following the growing pro-democracy movement since the fall of 2020 and expected something major during the scorching summer months. But, like most Cuba-watchers, I was shocked by the magnitude and geographic spread of the protests. 

Although the regime shut down internet access during the uprising, some protestors managed to post videos and comments of the violence against them. Armed shock troops and both uniformed and plainclothes police used tear gas, weapons, and bully sticks freely. An outraged President Díaz-Canel went on national TV the afternoon of the July 11th and called on revolutionaries and communists to take to the streets and defend the revolution. “The call to battle has been given,” he said, effectively calling for civil war. 

The violence intensified. Videos showed police shooting into streets, inside protestors’ homes, people being beaten, dragged by the hair, bloodied. One video, taken behind the thin curtain of a 2nd story window, shows beefy plainclothes agents pouring out of busses, most of them carrying four-foot wooden stakes. 

I wondered what orderly repression factory had created those uniformly cut and shaped stakes. And I had to admire, in a bleak way, the regime’s skill at hiding abuses. These plainclothes agents could beat anyone without implicating the state, which could claim that the citizens themselves were defending the revolution.

Activists reported widespread abuses against them, including being stripped naked in prison, beaten, and forced to shout revolutionary slogans. Rights groups documented and condemned Cuba’s brutality against political prisoners, calling on the country to respect the international norms, like the UN’s Nelson MandelaRules, approved unanimously by the General Assembly in 2015.

But like the Castros and their appointees before him, President Diaz-Canel continues to respond to these accusations with shameless denials. “We have no political prisoners,” he told the audience at a Havana event on December 7th. 

Prisoners Defenders, a respected Madrid-based human rights group, has evidence to refute his claims. The NGO has been documenting the regime’s political prisoner abuse over the years. The activists are held alongside common criminals, in filthy cells, their families often uninformed of their where-abouts for weeks on end or the charges they face. After summary trials without evidence, defense attorneys or family allowed in court, many of these prisoners from the July uprising have begun serving sentences of a dozen or more years for “disobedience,” “contempt,” “resistance,” and “instigation of delinquency.” Their families must find a way, despite the severe shortages of food and consumer goods, to supply their loved ones with everything from toothpaste to toilet paper. 

The government, which has a reputation for inaccurately reporting statistics, claimed that Diubis Laurencio Tejada, 36, was the only person killed during the protests. But at a November 20th rally in Boston, I met Damila, who carried a poster with her cousin’s picture on it and the word “Justice” across the top. She took the mic reluctantly and tearfully shared the young man’s story.  Christian Barrera Díaz was arrested during the July 11th uprising. His family searched desperately for him and were reassured when officials told them he was being held in a jail in Cardenas. But later, officials told them he’d been found in the sea, drowned, and that they’d already buried him. I don’t believe that Tejada was the only one who perished on July 11th

For some people, Cuba remains, even today, a model socialist society that has essentially eradicated racism, poverty, and provides its people free housing, health care and education from nursery school to post graduate studies. Its economic difficulties, in this version of the story, are due almost entirely to the brutal and cruel U.S. economic embargo, imposed by the Kennedy Administration in 1961 after Castro-led revolution appropriated all foreign owned property without compensating owners, many of whom were American. Cubans are united, this story says, in their support of the principles of the 1959 revolution. The protests are the result of the Cuban Mafia in South Florida, the CIA, and the U.S. government’s paid mercenaries on the island. 

Many who believe this story have given Cuba a hall-pass on its human rights abuses for the last 62 years. They don’t seem to mind that Cuba is the only country in our hemisphere that prohibits human rights monitoring—and denies it has any political prisoners at all. They are silent about the regime’s racist treatment of Afro Cuban activists, who tend to be imprisoned while white Cuban activists are typically kept under house arrest or forcibly exiled. They accept as a necessary evil Cuba’s brutal treatment of protestors but would denounce even the weakest of those tactics in the U.S. 

The stories we tell ourselves can blind us to the truth. And it’s easy to look the other way at problems we think don’t affect us directly, especially as we head into a third year of a global pandemic crisis and wide-spread political turmoil. 

But on this UN Human Rights Day, the flagrant violations of the most basic human rights in my homeland deserves attention, and action. 

I hope you’ll agree. Here are a few for you to consider. 

Thanks for caring about the Cuban struggle for freedom. 

Actions to Take

  • Contact your representatives the House and the Senate.
    • Ask what actions they’re taking to support human rights in Cuba.
    • Ask the 40 reps who declined to sign a H.Res 760, a non-binding expression of solidarity with the Cuban pro-democracy movement, why.
      • To Mass residents: McGovern and Pressley were Nays.
  • Ask President Biden to take action on this urgent matter, specifically:
    • Use Magnitsky Act sanctions against Cuba’s leaders
    • Provide mobile internet access to Cuba to allow civil society to communicate
  • Follow #SosCuba or #11J on Twitter / read 14ymedio, Cubadecide / share news on Cubanos en Boston – Cubans in Boston’s Facebook page.
  • Take Urgent Action with Amnesty International on Cuba
  • Ask your organization to officially endorse the call for human rights in Cuba.
  • Spread word, follow story, demand more reporting from the media.
  • Consider donating to groups like: 
  • CubaLex—Miami-based legal aid group helping Cubans on the island who’ve been imprisoned
  • 14yMedio—Independent online news media in Cuba
  • Prisoners Defenders—Madrid-based human rights group focusing on Cuban political prisoners.
  • Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watch (mention CUBAN violations)