Smoke signals to Cuba

The repression of dissent by the Cuban authorities has surged amid the Pope’s visit to the island this week.
By James Burke, Cuba Campaigner at Amnesty International

“The mobile you are calling does not exist.”

The phone in question, belonging to Cuban political activist José Daniel Ferrer García, certainly existed a week ago.

I know this because my colleagues and I spoke to him about increasing repression against government critics in the run-up to Pope Benedict XVI’s three-day visit to the island.

“The number you are dialling is wrong.”

We double check the telephone number of independent journalist and blogger Luis Felipe Rojas Rosabal. It is most definitely correct, but the recorded message would have us think otherwise.

“The number you have dialled is out of service.”

Our attempts to get through to the Havana office of the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation – an organization denied legal status by the Cuban authorities – draws a similar blank.

As our efforts to communicate with government critics, human rights activists and independent journalists across Cuba are continually frustrated, it becomes clear that repression of dissent by the Cuban authorities during the Pope’s visit has become increasingly Orwellian.

From just before the Pope arrived in Cuba last Monday, mobile and landline connections belonging to government critics, human rights activists and independent journalists have all apparently been tampered with. A communications blockade is in place, and all potential voices of dissent have been silenced by the authorities.

Communication with Cuba is always challenging, as access to the internet is heavily restricted.

The Twitter accounts of independent journalists and bloggers, who are able to tweet from their mobile phones, have almost all been silent over the last few days.

Blogger Yoani Sánchez has been one of the few who has been able to send regular tweets, but has been unable to receive text messages or calls. One tweet reads “anyone who wants to communicate with me, best to use smoke signals!”

There are reports of more than 200 people being detained or held under house arrest, to prevent them from travelling to attend open air masses celebrated by the Pope in Havana and Santiago de Cuba.

The majority have been detained in the capital Havana and in the eastern provinces of Santiago de Cuba, Holguín and Guantánamo.

The communications blockade is preventing Amnesty International and other international organizations from gathering information on these detentions and the draconian efforts of the Cuban authorities to silence dissent in front of the world’s media.

José Daniel Ferrer Garcia is a former prisoner of conscience and coordinator of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), an umbrella group of dissident organizations from the eastern provinces of Cuba. He has reportedly been held under house arrest along with his wife, a member of the rights group Ladies in White,  Belkis Cantillo Ramírez and their daughter.

They live in Palma de Soriano in Santiago de Cuba Province and had intended to travel to attend the open air mass which the Pope celebrated on Monday evening in the city of Santiago de Cuba. Luis Felipe Rojas Rosabal, who blogs on the effects of government restrictions on everyday life in eastern Cuba, is one of 26 people reportedly detained in his home province of Holguín.

The Cuban authorities would like the outside world to think that José Daniel’s mobile “does not exist”, and by extension that the criticism of government policies and restrictions that he and many other Cubans peacefully express, does not exist either.

However, the Cuban authorities’ attempt to silence the voice of peaceful dissidence on the international stage is ultimately fruitless: the genie has long left the bottle.

Amnesty International, along with other international human rights organizations, journalists and users of social media will continue to bear witness to the struggle of Cubans to seek respect for fundamental civil and political freedoms.