A surge in travel bans leaves activists and journalists unable to speak out overseas

Association

Election-related incidents

On 11th March, Cubans voted for their representatives in the National Assembly who will then elect a new president in April. Several violations were reported during the election period as documented below.  

On 11th February, the government prevented six activists from attending an electoral workshop in Argentina. It is unclear why each was barred from travelling; some were blocked at José Martí Airport, while others were stopped before they reached the airport. The activists are members of different organisations, including Network of Citizens Observers of Electoral Process, CxC, Independent and Democratic Cuba, and #Otro18. 

On 22nd February, a prominent activist with Unión Patriótica de Cuba (Patriotic Union of Cuba) was arrested, attacked and detained for 72 hours. Zaqueo Báez says he was subjected to a “strangulation technique” by state security agents who were allegedly trying to intimidate him for his political activities. He is also required to check in twice a week with authorities for reportedly resisting arrest. "However, at no time did I resist, how can I resist if I am almost hanged and in a horizontal position," the activists has asserted. Baez is a known supporter of the Cuba Decide campaign and he believes that is why he is being targeted.

The government crackdown on Unión Patriótica de Cuba has been aggressive. According to Carlos Amel Oliva Torres, the group’s spokesperson, the government arrested 70 members, raided five homes and attacked several members in February and March. He also said the government is targeting members for election-related activities and barring some from leaving the country to attend the Summit of Americas in Peru and other events in the region. 

The group’s spokesperson said activist Maité Hernández Guerra was detained for hanging posters calling for voters to boycott. In addition, Eliécer Góngora Izaguirre was arrested for filming Cubans “in support of the CubaDecide campaign”; activist Leonardo Pérez Franco was unable to leave Cuba to attend a workshop in Buenos Aires. Torres also said he and Katherine Mojena were denied the necessary paperwork to travel to Peru for the Summit. There are also reports that activist Iosvany Martínez Lemus, accused of contempt and resistance, was detained after being arrested at his daughter’s house in late February. Activist Roberto Pérez Rodríguez, who works with Cuba Decide, was brutally assaulted by police in February. According to Rodriguez, state security agents arrested him and his wife while they were shopping at a store. After releasing his wife, he was let go only to find more agents waiting for him near his house. They “started hitting me with machetes and bats,” he said, causing injuries to his arm, back and feet.

Electoral observers connected to Cuba Decide  were detained, harassed and arrested by state security agents to prevent them from performing their duties during the 11th March election, according to the group’s leader. Rosa María Payá says several workers were blocked from entering polling places and at least 12 were arrested, including Zaqueo Báez Guerrero, the head of the Patriotic Union of Cuba. 14ymedio also reports that at least 14 observers were denied the chance to vote after they had been removed from the polling station, and that members of Citizen Observers of Electoral Processes were “cited, threatened or are now detained” for trying to do their election-day work.

Travel bans

On 24th February, immigration officials at the airport denied two members of Comité Ciudadanos por la Integración Racial (Citizens Committee for Racial Integration) from exiting the country. Jacqueline Madrazo Luna and Dora Leonor Mesa Crespo had planned on attending an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) event in Bogota, Colombia. Crespo was told by officials at the airport that she was banned from traveling abroad. The human rights situation in Cuba was among the topics discussed at the IACHR event.

In two separate incidents on 4th April, two activists were prohibited from traveling abroad. Adonis Milan, a playwright and a member of Cuba Decide, says he was trying to attend the Forum of Civil Society and Social Actors in Peru but was blocked by Cuban authorities from boarding a plane in Havana. Gorki Águila, a musician with the punk rock band Porno para Ricardo was also prevented from leaving the country to attend the conference in Peru.

Arbitrary detentions and harassment of activists 

Facing harassment and intimidation from the state, an independent lawyer received a special protective measure from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). According to the IACHR, José Ernesto Morales Estrada, a prominent member of Consejería Jurídica de Instrucción Cívica (Legal Counsel and Civic Instruction), has been harassed on a daily basis and detained by authorities nearly 90 times since 2014. He was attacked by state security agents on at least one occasion. IACHR has called on the Cuban authorities to "adopt the necessary measures to guarantee the life and personal integrity of José Ernesto Morales Estrada, as well as to enable him to carry out his activities as a human rights defender and independent lawyer, without being subjected to acts of violence and harassment in the exercise of their functions”.

On 28th February, a prominent activist with the Patmos Institute was arrested by state security agents but it is unclear what charges he is facing. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Leonardo Rodríguez Alonso is being targeted for his human rights work at the Patmos Institute, an organisation that promotes religious freedom. The Institute recently submitted a report to the United Nation’s’ Universal Periodic Review. 

An LGBTQI activist was stopped, searched and mocked by state security agents at the airport before being allowed to travel out of the country. Leodán Suárez Quiñones was able to leave the country and attend a workshop sponsored by the Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America in Argentina but only after being detained and questioned by Havana police. Quiñones says agents joked about her orientation, searched her possessions and may have tampered with or bugged her phone.

Union-related issues

According to 14ymedio, about 15 people attended a meeting on 27th March to create Asociación Cubana de Transportistas Autónomos and Asociación de Cuentapropistas de Productos de Mercado (Cuban Association of Autonomous Transporters and the Self-Employed Association of Market Products). Rafael Alba, one the union’s main organisers, was arrested by police on his way to the meeting. Prominent activist and journalist Iliana Hernández, who was with Alba at the time of his arrest, says the police became violent when they tried taking her bag. She was also held for 24 hours at a detention centre but was not questioned nor told why she had been detained before being released. Alba was also not told why he was arrested but was told that if he persists in his activities. he risks losing his work and driving privileges.

Defenders' Database

A new database tracking human rights violations was recently launched by Civil Rights Defenders (CRD). The Defenders Database (DiDi) is designed to serve as a “tool for human rights defenders to register, analyze and share information about human rights violations,” according to the CRD website. It currently only tracks violations in Cuba but plans on expanding to track violations in other countries. "Thanks to DiDi, from now on we can see how human rights violations develop in real time and act accordingly," CRD says.

Peaceful Assembly

On 19th February, activists demonstrated in Havana to mark the eighth anniversary of the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo. Holding signs that said, “Freedom for Political Prisoners,” “Zapata Vive,” and “Long Live Human Rights,” the protesters gathered in a park in the La Lisa neighbourhood of Havana. Among the 19 protesters were members of Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) and Orlando Zapata Tamayo Civic Action Front. Tamayo, a plumber turned activist, died in 2010 after a prolonged hunger strike that drew international attention.

On 25th March, a prominent activist and his mother were both beaten and arrested by state security agents. Asunción Carrillo was attempting to march with her fellow Ladies in White when she was violently arrested outside of her home in Matanzas. Seeing his mother being attacked by police, Iván Hernández Carrillo tried to intervene. According to Dario de Cuba, Hernández shouted anti-government slogans as he attempted to help his mother. He says police kicked him and hit him in the face, and the abuse continued at the detention centre. "The wrists of my hands are inflamed, I have burns on my back because I have crawled on the floor," said Carrillo. Both he and his mother were released after paying a fine.

Ladies in White, a group of female relatives of political prisoners, remains a primary target of repression from authorities, with reports of violent arrests spiking in early 2018. Several women, including Martha Sánchez who was detained on 11th March, were arrested by state security agents before their weekly silent march began. The group’s leader, Berta Solar, according to Sanchez, is being accused of "disobedience and contempt” but has yet to face formal charges. On 18th March, several Ladies in White were violently arrested as they marked the 15th anniversary of the Black Spring, when in 2003, 75 dissidents and independent journalists were arrested by state security agents and sentenced to long-term prison sentences. On 5th March, security forces prevented at least 30 women from marching, and some of the women, including Solar, were physically beaten while yelling anti-government slogans. According to news reports, approximately 30 women were detained or prevented from participating in the marches every Sunday in February. In some instances, authorities waited outside of the group’s Havana headquarters and arrested the women even before their march could begin.

Expression

Travel bans

On 25th February, two farmers were arrested for attempting to board a flight to Miami after state security agents had told them they would not be permitted to leave the country two days earlier. Alfredo and Ariel López González had been invited to deliver a presentation about their family farm at a conference in Miami but were told by officials at the airport that they had been “restricted” from traveling. The two men will submit a lawsuit challenging their travel ban, saying that neither has a criminal record nor has been accused of any wrongdoing. Dagoberto Valdés, the director of the organisation hosting the conference, was also initially stopped at the airport, but was able to depart two days later after filing a complaint, as reported before on the Monitor. 

On 27th March, an independent journalist and activist was detained by state security agents after seeking a refund for the cost of a plane ticket she was unable to use due to a travel ban. Iliana Hernández says her intention was to file a collective complaint on behalf of herself and others who are “restricted” from traveling. Hernández, who launched Somos + - a youth opposition group, says that by prohibiting their travel, the government punishes activists "for the simple fact of thinking differently".

Censorship

On its two-year anniversary, an independent news outlet says the government is blocking users in Cuba from accessing its website. The online media outlet El Estornudo stated that the government "decided to block direct access to the magazine” for Cubans on the island. Joining other independent news sites that have been blocked, editors at El Estornudo say they will not be intimidated. “We must continue to remember that censorship is arbitrary and forced, the deprivation of the basic right to speak and exist,” the paper said in an editorial. The site receives about 35,000 monthly visits, mostly from the U.S., according to the site’s editor.

A book containing interviews with musicians was banned by government officials at the Havana International Book Fair. Rapping a Utopian Cuba by writer Alejandro Zamora features interviews with musicians talking about their craft. “Shortly after one of the publisher’s representatives had given the author four copies of his book, a Customs official appeared without any papers or anything and took them all,” said an activist who was at the book fair. 14ymedio reported that the book may have been confiscated because it contains an interview with a musician named Aldo who belongs to a band that is banned on the island.

On 20th March, the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry banned a movie from being shown at a film festival for its perceived negative commentary about José Martí. In its statement, the ICAIC wrote that “in the film, a character expresses himself in an unacceptable way towards José Martí”. The filmmaker, Yimit Ramírez, says his unfinished movie is not about Marti and hopes it serves to “open up a debate with the public”.

Arrest and detention of activists

Accused of “clandestine printing”, a human rights activist was detained, had his home searched and his possessions seized by state security agents on 27th February. Moisés Leonardo Rodríguez says “six individuals dressed in civilian clothes arrived at my house with a search warrant searching for counter-revolutionary objects and documents”. Rodriguez says they also threatened his daughter and told him he would never be able to leave the country. They took his laptop, other electronic devices including his printer, and “even a blackboard”. He believes he was targeted by the government for advising civil society groups to participate in the United Nation’s Universal Periodic Review.

An imprisoned singer went on a hunger strike to protest his treatment in prison. "I am in the prison of Ariza, better known as the cementery of the living dead, where hope is lost," Henry Laso wrote in an online post on 20th March. After being kept in isolation, Laso began a hunger strike but was forced to end it after developing health problems. He faces three to five years for allegedly assaulting a police officer during his arrest. He says those charges are false and that he was physically attacked by the officers.

Days after being arrested on 21st March, a 20-year old activist with Movement of the Opposition Youth Awakening (MOJD) was sentenced to two years in prison for the crime of “Pre-Licensed Social Hazard.” Supporters of Aracelis Fernández Pérez say she was charged with a crime that is often used to intimidate young dissidents. Three other members of MOJD, Omar Cárdenas Valdés, Denis Nieves Veitía and Antonio Márquez, have also been imprisoned, according to the group’s leader.

Activists and blogger Agustin Lopez Canino was arrested and faces up to one year in prison for the alleged crime of “receiving”, defined as exchanging or acquiring goods that come from a crime, according to 14ymedio. On 2nd March, state security agents searched the home of Agustin Lopez Canino, seizing his computer, a camera and other electronic equipment, but reportedly did not present a search warrant. Canino, an outspoken critic of the government policies, was released after nearly four days of being detained and paying a fine.

On 3rd April, independent journalist Rudy Cabrera was released after being detained for 48 hours and paying a fine for "illicit economic activity". Cabrera, who works for Cubanet, says the officers who interrogated him threatened him with jail repeatedly and said his work as a reporter put him "under the spotlight". Before he was arrested, his home was searched and many possessions, including a laptop, cell phones, and other equipment were seized.

Other issues

In a positive development, charges against three independent journalists from La Hora de Cuba have been “filed provisionally”, an administrative maneuver that ends the case against them, according to the journalists. Writing in an online post, Constantín Ferreiro says he and Sol García Basulto, both of whom spent over one year in prison awaiting trial, were falsely accused and are still under a travel ban. A third reporter, Iris Mariño García, had been detained for two months, as reported on the Monitor. García Basulto said that she and her colleagues never stopped, “denouncing, protesting and demanding our rights," during their detention. The journalists, who had faced charges of "usurpation of legal capacity" (practicing unauthorised journalism), believe the government will continue to intimidate them and other independent journalists.

An online campaign seeks the return of items taken from an art gallery by state security agents. Activists say the El Círculo Gallery was raided on 2nd February by security agents, who detained two artists, Lía Villares and Luis Trápaga, for more than 30 hours and took several items including electronic devices and materials, personal items and artwork. The campaign calls for the possessions to be returned and for the artists’ travel ban to be lifted.