Detained protesters in Cuba face up to 30 years in prison as they face the island’s largest and most punitive mass trials since the early years of the revolution.
Prosecutors last week tried more than 60 citizens charged with crimes, including sedition, for participating in protests against the country’s economic crisis over the summer, human rights activists and relatives of detainees.
Among those prosecuted are at least five minors aged barely 16 years. They are among more than 620 detainees who have been or are expected to be tried for joining the biggest outburst of popular discontent against the communist government since it took power in 1959.
The severity of the charges is part of a concerted effort by the government to deter further public displays of discontent, activists said. The crackdown has also dashed lingering hopes of gradual liberalization under President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who in 2018 replaced Fidel Castro’s brother Raúl to become the first Cuban leader outside the Castro family since 1959.
“What rules here is an empire of fear,” said Daniel Triana, a Cuban actor and activist who was briefly detained after the protests. “The repression here does not kill directly but forces you to choose between prison and exile.”
US trade embargo
For six decades, Cuba has lived under a punitive trade embargo from the United States. The Cuban government has long blamed the collapse of the country’s economy solely on Washington, diverting attention from the effects of Havana’s mismanagement and strict limits on private enterprise.
Cuba erupted in unexpected protest on July 11, when thousands of people, many from the country’s poorest neighborhoods, marched through towns and villages to denounce spiraling inflation, power outages and the worsening shortages of food and medicine.
The scenes of mass discontent – widely shared on social media – have shattered the idea promoted by Cuban leaders that popular support for the ruling Communist Party endures, despite economic hardship.
After initially being taken by surprise, the government responded with the biggest crackdown in decades, sending in military units to crush the protests. More than 1,300 protesters have been arrested, according to human rights organization Cubalex and Justice J11, an umbrella organization of Cuban civil society groups that monitors the aftermath of the summer’s unrest.
The Cuban government did not respond to requests for comment sent through the foreign media office. The scale of the government’s reaction has shocked longtime opposition figures and Cuban observers.
Cuban leaders have always reacted quickly to any public discontent, jailing protesters and harassing dissidents. But previous crackdowns have tended to focus on relatively small groups of political activists. By contrast, the mass trials that began in December are targeting, for the first time in decades, people who had largely had no connection to politics before stepping out of their homes to join the crowds calling for change, said historians and activists.
“It’s something completely new,” said Martha Beatriz Roque, a prominent Cuban dissident who was convicted of sedition in 2003, along with 74 other activists, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Their sentences were eventually commuted and most were allowed into exile.
“There is not a drop of compassion left, and that is what makes the difference” with the past, she said by telephone from her home in Havana.
Yosvany García, a 33-year-old welder, had never participated in protests or encountered any problems with the law, said his wife, Mailin Rodríguez. On July 11, he returned for lunch, as usual, from his workshop in the provincial capital of Holguín.
But on his way back to work, he encountered a crowd demanding political change, Rodríguez said. Driven by a wave of outrage at the unbearable cost of living, García joined the march, she said. He was beaten by police, who dispersed the rally later that day, but returned to his wife’s house that evening.
Four days later, he was cornered by police near his home and taken to jail. Last Wednesday, García was charged with sedition along with 20 other protesters, including five teenagers between the ages of 17 and 16, the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Cuba. All face sentences of at least five years in prison; García faces a 30-year sentence.
Rowland Castillo was 17 in July when he was arrested for joining the protest in a working-class suburb of the capital, Havana. A provincial champion in wrestling, one of Cuba’s most popular sports, Castillo attended a state sports academy and never participated in political activities, according to his mother, Yudinela Castro.
She said she only realized he had joined the protest when police came to arrest him a few days later. Prosecutors are seeking a 23-year sentence against him for sedition.
Castro said that after her son’s arrest, she was fired from the public food market where she worked. She now lives thanks to donations from neighbors and supporters in an abandoned community first aid clinic with her two-year-old grandson – Castillo’s son – as she tries to recover from cancer.
“Thanks to him, I realized the evil that is happening in this country,” she said, referring to her imprisoned son. “He didn’t do anything except come out and ask for freedom.”
Initially, the accession of Díaz-Canel (61) to the presidency in 2018 raised hopes of gradual change in some circles. He wasn’t part of the old guard that came to power with the Castros. In power, he attempted to streamline Cuba’s convoluted monetary system and introduced changes to develop the private sector in an effort to alleviate a crippling economic crisis caused by the pandemic, Trump administration sanctions and shrinking aid from the island’s socialist ally, Venezuela.
But Diaz-Canel, born after the revolution, could not evoke the anti-imperialist struggles of the Castro brothers to hide the constant decline in the standard of living. When the protests broke out, he reacted forcefully.
“They have no intention of changing,” said Salomé García, an activist with Justice J11, the rights group, “to allow Cuban society to participate in determining its destiny.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times