Attacks and harassment of independent media continues unabated

On July 2018, several prominent Cuban activists, independent journalists, and human rights defenders wrote a letter to the European Union calling on it to pressure the Cuban government to release its 120 political prisoners, many of whom have been in prison for nearly 20 years. "The condemnation and demand of the dictatorship for the release of political prisoners must be constant and unanimous," the letter said. Signed by high-profile activists like Berta Soler, Angel Moya, and Cuban activists and organisations based on and off the island, they described a system of cruelty that is going unchecked. “The Cuban political imprisonment has been the longest, cruelest and most numerous in the hemisphere. Thousands of Cubans have suffered the violence of the Castro regime under total neglect.” Addressing the feelings of helplessness that many political prisoners experience, the letter adds, “hunger strikes have become practically the only resource to face the dictatorship."

Association

In two separate attacks, the home of a political prisoner's wife was allegedly vandalised by state security forces trying to intimidate her. Arianna López Roque, a mother of two young children and wife of Mitzael Díaz Paseiro, says her house and neighbouring homes were attacked twice in June 2018 because of her protest against the state’s refusal to let her visit her husband in prison. The early morning attacks, which included a death threat written on the sidewalk and stones, excrement and asphalt thrown at her house, have frightened her children and put them at risk of becoming ill.

On 30th June 2018, police arrested Eliecer Góngora Izaguirre for refusing to pay a 2,000 peso fine related to his distribution of information about the Cuba Decide initiative. A day later, he was sentenced to six months in prison. Izaguirre, an activist with Unión Patriótica de Cuba (Patriotic Union of Cuba, UNPACU), has been an outspoken critic of state security forces’ continued harassment of political activists. Two other UNPACU activists, Orlán Hernández Velázquez and Yeroslandy Calderín Alvarado, were also sanctioned for similar reasons.

Peaceful Assembly

On 21st July 2018, five artists were arrested in front of the Capital in Havana for attempting to stage a public protest against Decree 349, a new measure that restricts artistic expression. "We are artists, we want respect, we ask to meet with the minister of culture," said one of the protesters. According to 14ymedio, artist Iris Ruiz was held for about four hours and, accused of creating a “public disorder” before being released. The other artists, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Amaury Pacheco OmniPoeta, and Soandry Del Rio were moved to a detention center in Calabazar and are awaiting trial on “public disorder” charges. Otero Alcántara, who colleagues say was beaten by police during his arrest, also faces an assault charge for allegedly hitting a police officer. Decree 349, which went into effect mid-July, is designed to limit artists from performing at private bars and clubs without the government's permission. 

On 3rd July 2018, an environmental activist was freed on parole after spending more than two weeks on a hunger strike to protest his one-year prison sentence for allegedly “disrespecting” a forest ranger. Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, required hospitalisation upon his release but says he is now in good health. "Without the support, the pressure made, without the international help, my liberation would not have been possible," Urquiola said. Amnesty International has called the activist a prisoner of conscience and demanded his unconditional and immediate release. 

The government's crackdown on the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) continues to intensify. Yolanda Santana Ayala was sentenced to one year in prison for the "non-payment of fines", a common tactic used by State Security to imprison the women for their silent marches on behalf of political prisoners. Santana Ayala was among four Ladies in White that were arrested in late June, according to the group’s leader, Berta Soler. "She was imprisoned for non-payment of fines, fines that she has refused to pay because she has not committed any crime,” Soler added. Other women, including Aymara Nieto, Gladys Capote and Micaela Roll, who were attacked by police officers during their arrests, also face trial for not paying fines. On 8th July, at least 11 women were assaulted and arrested before they could attend mass. In Cárdenas, a women and her elderly family members were driven from their rented home because of threats made by state security agents to the owners of the property. On 10th July, Soler condemned the oppression of activists on the island and called on the international community to intervene. "The harassment is very strong, but we will continue the fight for the freedom of political prisoners and respect for human rights," Soler said.

LGBTI activists are speaking out against evangelical groups that seek to prevent marriage equality in the Cuban constitution. Activists, including Mariela Castro Espin, the daughter of former leader Raul Castro, are campaigning to  amend the constitution to expand rights for LGBTI people. In June 2018, five Evangelical church groups expressed their opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples and issued a signed declaration. The National Assembly is expected to consider amendments to the country’s constitution, which currently defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Expression

Arrest and detention of journalists

Several journalists who belong to the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and of the Press (ICLEP) were detained or harassed by security forces in June 2018. ICLEP members told the Knight Center for Journalism that, “four houses have been raided, journalistic equipment has been confiscated, and ten journalists have suffered aggressions including interrogations, arbitrary detentions and physical and psychological aggression”. This includes Martha Liset Sánchez of Cocodrillo Callejero, who was taken by National Revolutionary Police and State Security agents on 25th June 2018. According to her husband, Alberto Corzo, executive director of ICLEP, officers who raided the office asked about the equipment “that you use to make the bulletins” before telling him that his wife is “under investigation”. ICLEP’s Alberto Castaño was also reportedly released after being held for 96 hours following a raid on the offices of El Majadero de Artemisa, an ICLEP community member. ICLEP describes the government crackdown as “the greatest repressive wave that the Cuban regime has unleashed this year, against freedom of expression and the press on the island”.

Osmel Ramírez Álvarez, a contributor to Diario de Cuba and The Havana Times and a frequent target of state repression, was arrested on 20th June by State Security. According to his wife, it has been difficult to contact her husband while he is being detained and State Security agents told him that he would be detained for 72 hours for each article he published in the free press.

On 21st June, State Security in Camagüey interrogated Inalkis Rodríguez, the assistant editor of La Hora de Cuba, and accused her of vandalising a colleague’s house. Authorities also told her that she is prohibited from leaving the country. Rodriguez believes she is being targeted because she is invited to an event in Spain about the state of Cuban human rights, “and they want to prohibit me from traveling”. Several other members of La Hora de Cuba have been harassed and arrested in the past few months.

On 6th July, two independent journalists were detained for about three days by State Security in Holguín for illegal journalism (usurpation of functions). Manuel Alejandro León Velázquez of Diario de Cuba and Alexander Rodríguez Santiesteban of the Eastern Democratic Alliance say they were held in separate cells, threatened, denied food for their entire detention and questioned about what they were doing in Holguín.

On 10th July photographer Claudio Fuentes and his girlfriend were arrested in Havana by State Security and held for over 25 hours, according to activists and colleagues. It is unclear why he was arrested. Fuentes has been arrested before because of his work on human rights issues.

An artist remains in state custody in the psychiatric wing of a hospital for writing an anti-Castro song despite the charges against him being dropped. Henry Laso, who is currently being held at a medical facility after being beaten by state security, told Diario de Cuba that an official told him he would be released if he would speak out against a song he wrote that is critical of Fidel Castro. "[I]f you retract in front of a camera your song 'A false king' and of the accusations that you have made we give you freedom,” is part of the message to Laso by State Security. The charges against Laso were dropped in May.

A reporter for Tremenda Note says he was “kidnapped” by State Security and threatened because of his investigative work. Rafael Gordo Nunez says his interrogators showed him emails, documents and audio recordings that they claimed were proof of his collaboration with anti-government organisations and threatened him with 30 years in jail for his alleged crimes. "It was horrible, basically I was kidnapped [for] seven hours, there is no complaint, it was not in a police station, it was in a house on the outskirts of Camagüey," said Gordo Nunez. state security also threatened his life if he did not cooperate with them. According to Diario de Cuba, Laura Rodríguez Fuentes, another journalist and colleague of Gordo Núñez, was interrogated in a similar manner.

On 3rd July, independent journalist Roberto de Jesús Quiñones was detained and had his work and personal belongings seized by State Security. According to 14ymedio, officers searched his home and removed the journalist’s cash and passport, computers and other electronics, and personal documents belonging to him and his wife. "For them I am a counterrevolutionary and I am attacking the government with my writings,” Quiñones said after he was released three days later.

The Asociación Pro Libertad de Prensa (Association Pro Libertad de Prensa, APLP), a group that monitors the state of press freedom in Cuba, says there were several attacks on independent journalists in June 2018. Carlos Torres Fleites, a reporter with Cubanet and 14ymedio, was allegedly arrested by State Security forces after conducting interviews with residents of Calle Real, Santa Clara. 14ymedio reports that he had his work phone seized and was "forced to be without clothes" while detained. 14ymedio also reports that Niorbe García Fournier, a journalist with the Hablemos Press, had his house raided by State Security and was threatened with "going to prison for espionage and for giving false information that threatens international peace".

Travel bans

Without offering an explanation, authorities stopped a musician on 15th June at José Martí airport and prevented him from boarding a flight for Miami. Gorki Águila says he was unaware of any restriction on his travel when he bought his ticket. "There was no reason, simply what they are trying to show is that they are the ones who rule, violating our most basic rights," Aguila said. He is known for his activism and is a signatory to Disobedience and Rebellion, a letter that publicly denounced "dynastic succession of the Castro family", according to the media.

Despite the hostile environment journalists are facing, the repression and harassment of independent journalists was not discussed at the July meeting of the Union of Journalists of Cuba (UPEC), a state-sponsored association for members of the official media in Cuba. Speaking to nearly 300 reporters, photographers and other press, President Miguel Díaz-Canel praised their work and called on them to “subordinate themselves to the "truth" of the regime,” according to Diario de Cuba. He and other speakers also criticised the press, suggesting that they are paid by foreign entities to discredit the regime and distort the truth. Independent journalists described the event as a publicity stunt, saying it only supports journalism that paints the government in a favourable way and failed to address the most pressing issues including arbitrary detentions and harassment, the seizing of work related materials, and censorship.