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CUBA 2021

In the wake of historic protests in July, Cuban authorities imprisoned many hundreds of protesters, almost 700 of whom remained in prison at the end of the year. The authorities ramped up their machinery of control over freedom of expression and assembly with physical surveillance of human rights activists, artists and journalists, and by subjecting them to house arrest, arbitrary detention, violations of due process and, in some cases, ill-treatment, while also disrupting the internet. The economic situation continued to deteriorate and the US authorities again failed to lift the economic embargo.

Repression of dissent

Thousands of people took to the streets on 11 July to peacefully protest over the economy, shortages of medicines, the government’s response to Covid-19 and harsh restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, in one of the largest demonstrations seen in decades.1

In response to the protests, the Cuban authorities detained many hundreds of protesters, of whom almost 700 remained in prison at the end of the year, according to NGO Cubalex. Authorities also subjected activists and journalists to house arrest and arbitrary detention, violated due process rights and, in some instances, ill-treated detainees, all while disrupting the internet.2

The majority of those detained were charged with crimes historically used to silence dissent and often inconsistent with international human rights law and standards. These included “public disorder”, “resistance”, “contempt”, “incitement to commit a crime” and “damages”.

Following the protests, many of those released from prison were formally put under house arrest pending their trial. Cuban authorities also subjected activists and journalists to physical surveillance by positioning security officials permanently outside their homes and threatening them with arrest if they left, amounting to arbitrary detention.

Relatives of those detained, and detainees who were later released, widely reported a range of violations of due process rights and incommunicado detention. While the Prosecutor General’s Office denied that detainees lacked access to legal assistance or had been held incommunicado, testimonies indicated otherwise.

The mass detentions also resulted in widespread reports of ill-treatment, including against women, and authorities subjected women journalists and activists to house arrest, surveillance and harassment. The authorities denied human rights violations were committed in the wake of the crackdown and, using their monopoly over the media, broadcast selected footage of incidents of violence during the protests to wrongly characterize them as violent overall. The President of the Supreme Court insisted that the justice system and judges operated with independence and indicated that the media was publishing false information distributed by “enemies of institutional order and the Cuban Revolution”. Meanwhile, during the period of protests, the authorities disrupted the internet and regularly blocked instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal.

In November, the government refused requests by civil society to hold a Civic March for Change, once again demonstrating its intolerance of protest.3

Human rights defenders

During the year, the government imprisoned numerous artists, journalists and political activists.

In April, authorities detained prisoners of conscience Esteban Rodríguez, an independent journalist for ADN Cuba, and Thais Mailén Franco Benítez, a human rights activist, in Old Havana, along with some 12 other people, for peacefully protesting in support of Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who at the time was on hunger strike in protest at constant police surveillance outside his home.4 Thais Mailén Franco Benítez was later released to complete her sentence under house arrest, but Esteban Rodríguez remained imprisoned at the end of the year.

In May, authorities also detained prisoner of conscience Maykel Castillo Pérez, one of the authors of “Patria y Vida”, a song critical of the Cuban government which was adopted as a protest anthem and for which he and other artists won “song of the year” at the Latin Grammys in November.5 He was charged with “assault”, “resistance”, “evasion of prisoners and detainees” and “public disorder”. In June, authorities imprisoned graphic artist Hamlet Lavastida, a former prisoner of conscience, allegedly for proposing an artistic performance in a private messaging conversation that in the end never took place. He was later released on condition that he left Cuba.

On 11 July, the day of nationwide protests, authorities detained prisoner of conscience Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a member of the San Isidro Movement which mobilized initially in opposition to a law that would censor artists, just after he announced on social media that he intended to join the protests. Later in the year, he contracted Covid-19 in prison and went on hunger strike in protest at his continued imprisonment. He remained in prison at the end of the year.

Similarly, state security officials detained José Daniel Ferrer García, activist and leader of the unofficial political opposition group Patriotic Union of Cuba, as he tried to attend the demonstrations in Santiago de Cuba with his son. Authorities later concealed his whereabouts, potentially amounting to an enforced disappearance. Despite the authorities’ ongoing repressive policy, throughout the year artists and activists continued to collaborate and innovate in solidarity. Artist Erik Ravelo launched “The Eternal Flame”, a digital conceptual memorial in support of artistic freedom of expression in Cuba.6

Economic, social and cultural rights

The economic situation continued to deteriorate, with media reports of significant shortages of food, essential medicines and other basic items. In May, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed concern over “acute and persistent food shortages in Cuba”, especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout the year there were electricity outages.

At various moments in the year there were reports of hospitals being overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases. However, by the middle of the year the authorities had scaled up their vaccination programme.

The authorities continued to place the blame for shortages exclusively on the economic embargo. Although the embargo violates economic, social and cultural rights in Cuba, it does not negate Cuba’s obligations to guarantee these rights to the maximum of its available resources.

  1. “Cuba: Massive protests are a desperate cry to a government that doesn’t listen”, 12 July
  2. “Cuba: Amnesty International names prisoners of conscience amidst crackdown on protesters”, 19 August
  3. “Cuba: Rejection of request to protest is yet another example of intolerance of freedom of expression”, 22 October
  4. “Cuba: Amnesty International names Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara of the San Isidro Movement a prisoner of conscience”, 21 May
  5. “Cuba: Amnesty International launches a holidays solidarity action in support of prisoners of conscience”, 17 December
  6. “Cuba: Amnesty International and artist Erik Ravelo launch ‘The Eternal Flame’, a digital conceptual memorial in support of San Isidro Movement and freedom of expression”, 29 April