Activists Tell of "Significant Escalation" under New Cuban President
For years, the Cuban regime has used arbitrary detention, frequently of short duration, as one of its main tactics to intimidate and silence its critics. According to the Cuban Observatory of Human Rights (CCDH), there were 4,821 arbitrary detentions in 2017. “In some cases, the detained are freed after receiving official warnings, which can later be used by prosecutors during criminal trials to demonstrate a supposed pattern of criminal conduct,” reports the Observatory. In other cases, a type of conditional release known as "extrapenal license" is invoked to release activists, but keep them on a short leash.
In 2018, despite the hope that the new president of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel, would be a reformer, things are only getting worse. VOC recently had the chance to speak to Cuban activists about the recent detentions of José Daniel Ferrer García and Ariel Ruiz Urquiola. Ferrer and Urquiola’s cases demonstrate that the Cuban regime still unleashes cruel and wanton abuse on those who raise their voices against it for any reason.
José Daniel Ferrer García, the head of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), was temporarily detained after a bizarre minor traffic accident on a remote, rural road on August 3 in which he struck an official of the Ministry of the Interior at low speed. Ferrer was arrested and held incommunicado for 12 days before being released.
It’s not the first time he’s been in jail. Ferrer was one of the “Group of 75” who were jailed for political reasons in the “Black Spring” of 2003. He was imprisoned until 2012. Since then, he has suffered temporary detention several times more.
When VOC spoke with Ferrer by phone, he said he was “nearly certain” that the incident had been planned in advance to frame him, especially because of the remote setting of the accident. He described being held with adequate food or a change of clothes for a week, before being moved to an even worse facility where he was deprived of medicine and water. “For some time I was interrogated into the early morning hours. They wanted me to say that I had tried to kill the man with the car in order to get vengeance for all the abuses and crimes that they said that we claim he has committed… So for 12 days I was incommunicado, unable to talk either in person or by phone with my family, without knowing where I was detained, [and] without the right to a lawyer.” While he was in prison, his partner Nelba Ismaray Ortega and his family were harassed for trying to gather information on his case.
The charges against Ferrer have not been dropped—in fact, he’s been released only on “extrapenal license,” a type of conditional release—and he told VOC that he fears being detained again on the same grounds. Ferrer was previously released on extrapenal license after his nine years in jail ending in 2012.
Another recent detainee is Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, an internationally recognized Cuban environmental scientist who has been a thorn in the side of Cuban authorities since 2008 and was expelled from his position at the University of Havana in 2016 on spurious grounds of absenteeism. Since then, he has developed a piece of land in the countryside to produce agricultural products and restore native varieties of flora and fauna. But when he demanded that two Interior Ministry officials who had come to his piece of land identify themselves, he was arrested for “contempt” for supposedly referring to them with an insulting term and sentenced to two years in jail. After two months, he carried out a hunger strike, and was released on extrapenal license—officially for an affective-depressive order, a justification his sister Omara Ruiz Urquiola calls “absurd.”
In an interview with VOC, Omara said she believes that media pressure was instrumental in getting Ariel released from prison—particularly the pressure exerted by independent media on the island. “Independent journalists are constantly in the crosshairs of the government. They’re the ones who have increased the visibility of what’s happening in Cuba,” she said. “The independent press has professionalized. Many of the people involved are university graduates… They’ve started independent media like El Estornudo and El Toque. They’ve received international prizes.”
The Cuban diaspora has also been instrumental: “Almost everyone from my and Ariel’s generation has left... They’re well-established in European universities or in the United States, in research centers. They aren’t political activists, but when they found out what had happened to Ariel, it was they who mobilized opinion. It started with friends.” Ariel’s role as a researcher on a project with the Humboldt University in Berlin also helped: “The German scientific community spoke out… Ariel’s boss, Thomas Van Rintelen, spoke publicly.”
Ferrer and Omara agree that things are not getting better under Miguel Díaz-Canel. “It is the same situation, even a worsening one,” said Ferrer, pointing to the extension of repression to sections of society including independent activists, the self-employed, and independent journalists. Díaz-Canel is best seen as a “decorative figure,” with Raúl Castro still holding the reins of power, said Ferrer. As long as Cuba remains a one-party state that does not guarantee basic civic rights, the planned introduction of a new constitution will be nothing but “rhetoric,” said Ferrer. “We’re telling the people, ‘we say no to the regime’s constitution, and we say yes to Cuba Decide,’” Ferrer said, referring to the petition campaign for a binding referendum on democratization.
Urquiola also saw an increase in repression. “There has been a significant escalation when it comes to the violation of human rights in Cuba since Miguel Díaz-Canel came to power,” she said. The reasons may have to do with Díaz-Canel’s political weakness: “[Díaz-Canel] feels insecure… Like it or not, Fidel Castro had the legitimacy that was given to him by his historical legacy. Good or bad, he had it, he had history. This man doesn’t have history. It could have been anyone. So many people, including in the Nomenklatura, are asking themselves, ‘Why him and not me?’”
But Ruiz also sees generational change. “There are many more people who are prepared to stay in Cuba and to fight in Cuba… Up above, the old people are still in charge, but the same isn’t true in civil society. So there is an imbalance that favors civil society. The future is in the hands of today’s young people.”