Cuban activists talk about lack of basic freedoms, 10 years on from mass crackdown

Cuban activist José Daniel Ferrer García can hardly remember a time when the authorities were not monitoring and blocking his movements and phone calls.

Coordinator of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (Unión Patriótica de Cuba, UNPACU), an unrecognized organization that seeks democratic change by non-violent means, José Daniel has been arrested on numerous occasions as punishment for his activism.

From his early days as an activist in the 1990s he was used to being arbitrarily detained on a regular basis for short periods and was constantly threatened with prison.

So when he was told by two state security officials on 15 March 2003 that he only had a few days to stop his dissident activities or he would face a long time in prison, his reaction was to laugh.

“They had threatened me so many times, with so many years of prison that I no longer took them seriously,” he said.

Three days later, however, on 18 March 2003, in what was later dubbed the “black spring” by those affected, José Daniel was arrested as part of a group of 75 political dissidents in an unprecedented crackdown on the dissident movement on the island.

They were all detained on spurious charges related to state security and following summary trials were sentenced to long prison terms of up to 28 years.

José Daniel was sentenced to 25 years under charges of “acts against the territorial independence or integrity of the state”. During his trial, the prosecution pushed for the death penalty, the maximum sentence for that “crime”. All he had been doing was help to organize a campaign calling for a referendum on legal reform to seek greater personal, political and economic freedoms in his country.

Amnesty International declared them all “prisoners of conscience” as they had been sentenced solely for the peaceful exercise of fundamental freedoms.

During his time in prison, José Daniel was moved to several prisons across the country – which made visits from his wife and three children, difficult.

But in July 2010, following the intervention of the Cuban Catholic Church, authorities in Cuba agreed to release all those of the 75 who remained in prison, amongst them, José Daniel.

The political dissidents were set free under “licencia extrapenal” a conditional release meaning that the charges against them were not being dropped but that they were allowed to spend the remainder of their sentences outside prison. Most activists, however, were forced into exile in Spain.

José Daniel refused to leave Cuba and was finally released in March 2011.

Since his release, he has continued to suffer from harassment – mainly in the form of short-term detentions aimed at preventing him from carrying out his activism, including attending private meetings and public events. His home has also been raided by state security forces and his computer confiscated.

In August 2012, he was arrested for 36 hours in the province of Holguín, before being released without charge. In April 2012, he was held for 27 days for “public disorder” in his home province of Santiago de Cuba and only released on the condition that he renounce his political activism, something he refused to do. Two months earlier, he had been arrested in Havana and held incommunicado for three days.

“The catalogue of repression and harassment suffered by José Daniel Ferrer García since his release illustrates the current strategy by the Cuban authorities under which activists are arrested for short periods of time to discourage them from speaking up about the state of human rights in the country,” said Javier Zúñiga, Special Advisor at Amnesty International.

According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights – an organization denied legal status in Cuba – there were at least 504 arbitrary detentions this February, while the unofficial news agency Hablemos Press has reported that 40 independent journalists and bloggers have been arbitrarily detained this year so far.

Travel banA new law came into force in January which has removed the need for Cubans to have a permit to travel abroad, making it easier for Cubans to leave the island and for Cubans living overseas to return.

Blogger Yoani Sánchez and the spokesperson of the NGO Ladies in White, Berta Soler have both recently been allowed to travel abroad, something which seemed impossible only a few months ago.

When he learned about the lift of Cuba’s travel ban, however, José Daniel knew that the historical change would not make much difference to him. The fact that he is still serving his sentence means he cannot apply for a passport until it ends in 2028.

Amnesty International says José Daniel and his fellow activists were imprisoned solely for the peaceful expression of their opinions and their sentences should be voided immediately.

And for the activists imprisoned during the 2003 crackdown and forced into exile, including journalist Pablo Pacheco, the ease in travel restrictions will be unlikely to allow them and their families to return to Cuba.

Pablo was originally sentenced to 20 years in prison under a law which prohibits the passing of information to the United States that could be used to bolster anti-Cuban measures, and was released in July 2010, under the condition that he and his family would move to Spain.

“Prison conditions were terrible – solitary cells with no sunlight and a toilet in the same cell. I lost 30 lbs and suffered long-term damage to my knees. My family was only allowed to visit once every three months,” he said to Amnesty International.

Pablo can still vividly remember the last day he spent in Cuba.

He was transferred directly from prison to the airport, where he met his wife and son. He spent nearly two years in Spain and then moved to Miami because the economic crisis in the European country left few job opportunities for him and his wife.

Pablo told Amnesty International that he wants to return to Cuba as his family and friends are there but that he will not be ready to return until the country turns into a real democracy.

Trumped-up chargesTrumped-up charges on offences such as “disrespect”, “public disorder”, “contempt” and “dangerousness” are still being used by the Cuban authorities to prosecute government opponents.

Amnesty International has recently named two imprisoned activists as “prisoners of conscience” – held solely because of the peaceful expression of their opinions.

Journalist Calixto Martínez Arias, a founder member of Hablemos Press, was arrested on 16 September 2012 near Havana airport by the Cuban Revolutionary Police. He was investigating allegations that medicine provided by the World Health Organization to fight a cholera outbreak was being kept at the airport, as the Cuban government were allegedly trying to down-play the seriousness of the outbreak.

When he complained at the police station about his detention, he was beaten and pepper-sprayed, and then called out “down with Raúl”, “down with Fidel” and was subsequently charged by the police with showing “disrespect” towards President Raúl Castro and Fidel Castro.

Calixto – who has yet to be formally charged by the public prosecutor – began a hunger strike on 6 March 2013 in protest at his continued detention.

Marcos Máiquel Lima Cruz is currently serving a three-year sentence having been detained on 25 December 2010 at his home in Holguín for playing songs by a Cuban hip-hop group, whose lyrics criticize the lack of freedom of expression in Cuba and dancing in front of his house whilst holding the Cuban flag. He was sentenced for “insulting symbols of the homeland” and “public disorder”.

For José Daniel, the 10 years following the crackdown has seen no improvement in the human rights situation in Cuba. The ease in travel restrictions is “just a smoke screen.  It will still be the Cuban government who decides who can and can’t leave. All the while other fundamental freedoms are still being repressed and that repression is increasing.”

“Civil society in Cuba has already lost its fear to speak out”, said Pablo Pacheco, “and the world needs to support their efforts”.