‘We are continuity’: What the president’s hashtag tells us about human rights in Cuba today

By Louise Tillotson, Caribbean researcher

Late last year, in a country where the Internet remains state-controlled and censored, Cuba’s new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, launched a twitter account. Since then, one of his favourite hashtags has been “#SomosContinuidad” (We are continuity). But what does “continuity” mean for human rights in Cuba?

Just a month after the president took office, the UN conducted a review of Cuba’s human rights record. As in previous reviews, Cuba’s authorities continued to reject a host of recommendations by other UN member states to ratify even the most basic international human rights treaties. They also refused multiple recommendations to strengthen the independence of the judiciary or to bring Cuba’s criminal laws in line with international law.

“Continuity” also means that Cuba will remain the only country in the Americas that Amnesty International, and most other independent human rights monitors, cannot visit. In September, we publicly reiterated our multiple requests to enter Cuba. After years, Cuba’s ambassador to the UN finally gave us a response: “Amnesty International will not enter Cuba, and we don’t need their advice.”

'Continuity' also means that Cuba will remain the only country in the Americas that Amnesty International, and most other independent human rights monitors, cannot visit.

But we won’t be deterred. Although not being able to visit Cuba makes our job harder – because we always prefer to sit down with governments and hear their version of events – we will keep finding ways to get around this. For example, in 2017, when thousands of Cuban migrants were crossing South and Central America and heading to the United States, we went to find and interview more than 60 of them in Mexico. Many had sold everything they owned, crossed about eight countries, and walked through the Darién Gap – a wild and perilous stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama – in search of a life where they didn’t feel weighed down and suffocated by Cuba’s oppressive state machinery.

The report we produced after many hours of interviews with ordinary Cubans detailed how trumped-up charges for common crimes, and politically motivated dismissals from state employment, continue to be used as tactics to silence those who even vaguely criticize the country’s political or economic system.

President Díaz-Canel seems to only want to strengthen this web of control over freedom of expression. In April 2018, one of the first laws he signed was Decree 349, a dystopian prospect that stands to censor artists, who will need prior authorization from the state in order to work, or risk sanction. So far, authorities have reportedly arbitrarily detained independent artists who have dared to protest the law. Of course, this is nothing new. Amnesty International has documented repression of independent artists in Cuba since at least the 1980s.

Perhaps a glimmer of hope last year was found in the constitutional reform process. Amnesty International welcomed the inclusion of protections against discrimination for LGBTI people in the first draft, and a provision which would have made Cuba the first independent nation in the Caribbean to legalize same-sex marriage. But by the end of 2018, the government had removed support for same-sex unions from the draft Constitution that will be put to referendum this month.

So, what is 'continuity' for human rights in Cuba? It’s confrontation and often detention or job loss, rather than dialogue, for anyone who challenges the state’s system.

There are some more progressive parts of the new Constitution – such as the explicit recognition of climate change as a global threat. But unless the authorities stop locking up activists like environmentalist Ariel Ruiz Urquiola for alleged “contempt” or disrespect of public officials, start giving Cubans access to information to participate in policies that affect the environment, and make the judiciary independent enough to enforce constitutionally protected rights, it’s hard to imagine that the new Constitution will translate into greater protection of human rights in practice.

So, what is “continuity” for human rights in Cuba? It’s confrontation and often detention or job loss, rather than dialogue, for anyone who challenges the state’s system.

It’s people imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression. And it’s the continued prohibition of the legitimate work of human rights organizations and lawyers who seek to defend them.

But within this tired system, “continuity” is also brave independent journalists and human rights activists taking risks, getting arrested, and daring to look through the cold divides of political ideology to think about alternatives and change.

This article was originally published by Anuario CIDOB