Cuba: Is Another Black Spring Coming?
The spring of 2003 came to be known in Cuba as the “Black Spring”. It was then when the state authorities, led by the dictator Fidel Castro, launched a large wave of repression against dissidents, regime critics, thinkers, independent journalists and human rights activists, accusing them of collaborating with the US and sentencing them based on the infamous Law 88. More than 70 persons were imprisoned; those that criticized the communist government became prisoners of conscience. They were released early in 2010, with most of them emigrating under government pressure.
Despite Cuba’s graduate opening to the world, including restoring diplomatic relations with the US and the arrival of the internet, the country remains a non-democratic one where freedom of expression and assembly is harshly suppressed. The reign of Fidel’s brother Raúl may be nearing its end, but the prospects for a freer society remain uncertain.
Among the possible candidates are Cuba’s first vice-president, the Marxist Miguel Diaz-Canel, and another Castro – Alejandro, the son of Raúl, who is the leader of the Commission on Defense and National Security, which oversees the Cuban intelligence services. Alejandro’s victory would very likely mean severe restrictions on the few present freedoms, further closing of the space for civil society and even tighter control and monitoring of Cuban citizens. Certain human rights defenders share their fears about Alejandro Castro being the link to establishing a genuine dictatorship in Cuba.
If Alejandro doesn’t become the head of the state, the presidential elections on April 19 will be historic ones, ending half-a-century of reign of the Castros in Cuba. However, even if the winner is Miguel Diaz-Canel, any significant economic or political reforms will remain unlikely. Raúl Castro will stay as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, which means he will continue having a strong influence on most key political decisions affecting the country.
What is certain is that with the upcoming elections, Cuban civil society continues to face harsh repressions and persecution. The beginning of the year saw a big number of detentions and interrogations. According to the Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos y Reconciliación Nacional (The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation), an independent Cuban organization monitoring detention cases in the country, 677 arbitrary detentions took place only during January and February of this year. That is 70 more detentions recorded than during November and December of 2017. Some activists and their families have also noticed officers of the Cuban Security Services in front of their flats and houses, monitoring their activities.
“For more than 5 days already, there are police officers spying on us in front of my house,” reported Henry, a member of Eye on Cuba, a group monitoring cases of human rights violations in Cuba.
Six activists were prevented from flying to Argentina for a workshop related to the election on February 10. The State Security Services delayed them at the airport long enough for the plane to take off without them. Not long before that, six members of UNPACU (The Patriotic Union of Cuba) were detained in various Cuban provinces. UNPACU is one of the most persecuted dissident organizations on the island. The Security Services broke into their homes and confiscated their personal belongings. Within two following days, they detained further 10 members or supporters of the same organization.
During the end of January, five members of the Association of Independent Trade Unions of Cuba were interrogated. The State Security threatened them, and searched the houses of some of them. This happened a short time after a meeting of the Association in the province of Cienfuegos. Two members, Reyes Consuegra and Alfonso de Armas, describe how the police stopped traffic completely and guarded the only two entrances to the city where they were headed after the meeting ended. Reyes and Alfonso were travelling with a state bus company when the police stopped the bus, brought them out, confiscated their phones and the documents they were carrying from the meeting. After forcing them to get on a military jeep, the traffic returned to normal.
Towards the end of the summer 2017, Jean Pierre Isla Pérez, an independent lawyer, traveled to the US for a workshop on human rights. Shortly after his return to Cuba, he was suddenly stopped by the members of the National Revolutionary Police Force when he was carrying his laptop to a repair shop close to Havana. The police requested his identity documents and confiscated his laptop and mobile phone. This was followed by an interrogation during which he was asked about his recent travel to the US. They also questioned him regarding his travels around Cuba and requested the contacts of all the people that he had visited after coming back from the US. He was released after three days; his belongings were not returned to him, with the exception of his IDs and the money for the journey home. The police then called and threatened the people that Jean Pierre visited in Cuba after his return.
"Each person's rights are violated in a different manner," says Marlon, another member of the Eye on Cuba network. "For some, the police plays the "good guy/bad guy" tactic, others are beaten up, some are simply provoked to make them angry enough to attack the members of the police, so that they can then accuse them from an "assassination attempt"; others are shouted at, and sometimes, they try to convert the opposition member into an informant," he explains some of the tactics of the Cuban State Security.
"The time you will remain in a police cell depends largely on the individual policemen or on how much they want to intimidate you. They may tell you that it is certain you will go to prison, and then let you go the next day. They try to hold you for a maximum of 72 hours, otherwise it means more bureaucracy for them - they would have to label it as "taking into custody", for example. They do it all only to show you that they hold power over you."
The elections in Cuba draw a lot of international attention and as with many other significant events, this is seen as a chance for the Cuban regime to present itself in the best possible light. That is why, during this time, critical voices are suppressed even more, with the pressure getting stronger especially on civic activists and human rights defenders. Cuban human rights groups, however, fear that this renewed pressure is not only connected to the elections. They believe that the attempt to silence advocates for civil rights will continue further - especially if Cuba becomes more affected by the Venezuelan crisis, and if Raúl's son Alejandro Castro gains more power.