‘There is a terrible fear’: Inside Cuba’s crackdown after dramatic protests

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In the wake of the July 11 street protests that rocked Cuba’s Communist regime, the Havana government has moved to reassert control by arresting hundreds of their own citizens, more than three dozen of whom are suspected of having been “forced disappearances” 

Beginning the week after the demonstrations, Cubans who had been swept up by the authorities were judged in summary trials in groups of 10 or 12 at a time, independent journalist Cynthia de la Cantera told The Post. She explained that Cuban law allows for such swift disposition of cases involving purportedly minor crimes, where the punishment is less than one year in prison.

“They are making what we call ‘exemplary’ trials, with many people who are being prosecuted without evidence,” she said.

“Many defendants don’t have lawyers, they [the authorities] don’t allow their relatives in court or their relatives are not notified,” Cantera added. “In some cases, the relatives were told the trial would be held at a certain place and when they arrived, it turned out the trial was being held elsewhere, they arrived late and therefore couldn’t enter. In short, there are many irregularities in this process.”

According to Cantera, relatives of defendants who do have access to legal representation are being told to keep quiet about their loved ones’ cases so that they may receive a lighter sentence. She notes that private legal practice is illegal on the island, leaving the accused to stand alone against a rigged system.

“Many lawyers are recommending to the relatives not to divulge the cases on social networks, not to make the case visible, not to talk to the independent press, not to talk to the foreign press,” she said, adding that “some have even told them not to go through an appeal process because the penalty may be higher.”

“There is also a lack of legal culture in Cuba,” she went on, “and right now it puts many families in a very vulnerable situation.”

In an effort to break the code of silence, Cantera and other independent journalists and activists are working to catalogue information about their arrested compatriots.

As of late Tuesday, a Google document contained the names of 805 people who had been arrested or are otherwise unaccounted for in the aftermath of the demonstrations, the intensity of which Cantera described as unprecedented since the ascension of Fidel Castro to power in 1959. The list has been slowly built out despite the best efforts of the Cuban government to limit the spread of information about their actions.

“You have to realize that all this is functionally illegal and blocked by the Cuban government, so they’re trying to hack it as best they can while some among them are getting detained, disappeared, etc. and the internet is shutting off all the time,” said author Antonio Garcia Martinez, who shared the list with The Post. “So, it’s a scramble on their side.”

The document, which is entitled “List of detainees and disappeared Cuba July 2021,” includes each person’s name, the place they were last seen, the time and date of their detention if known, the latest report on their status and their age if known. Only a select few can update the document, in order to prevent pro-regime propagandists from deleting the information or spreading falsehoods.

The youngest person on the list is 14-year-old Christopher Lleonart Santana of Havana. At last report, he was arrested July 17 at 3 a.m., accused of throwing stones and held in a detention center for minors.

“His mother reports that he has been beaten,” the document reads.

Another name on the list is 15-year-old Glenda de la Caridad Marrero Cartaya, described as a computer student accused of “inciting riots” in the town of Jovellanos, about 100 miles east of Havana. She faces up to 60 days in prison.

Nearly two dozen people on the list have already been tried and sentenced to between 8 and 12 months in prison. One of them is 17-year-old Katherine Martin, who was arrested along with her mother and her sister Miriam. The document records that Katherine was sentenced to a year in prison after a summary trial on July 20 and was “badly beaten” while in jail.

“Katty is a very brave girl,” the document records the testimony of a fellow detainee. “We called her ‘The Colombian’ because she imitates the Colombian accent to perfection and made us laugh a lot. Katty is only 17 and has had to live in prison because she doesn’t agree, because she doesn’t conform.”

Katherine’s mother, Myra Taquechel, has been sentenced to eight months in prison while sister Miriam has been released on bail.

Another name on the list, 25-year-old photographer old Angelo Troya, was given a year in prison for filming the protests, according to independent journalist Claudia Padrón Cueto.

“Angelo went out to film the protests, to document them. Only that,” Cueto tweeted July 21. “They did not forgive him for filming … They did not forgive him for filming the demonstrations and repression”.

The oldest person on the list is 68-year-old Felix Navarro Rodriguez, who was reportedly arrested and charged with public disorder while inquiring about other detainees the day after the protests in the city of Matanzas, 55 miles east of Havana.

“The list is based on reports from family members and friends,” Cantera explained. “They’re either public reports that are posted on social networks or from people who contact us through our internal channels and ask us to please add their family member to the list, who believe that it is necessary for them to be there to make that case visible, so we do it.”

Once a person is reported detained, Cantera says, a group of women is tasked with verifying they actually have lost their freedom.

“They contact other family members, other friends, they check Facebook, they check social media pages to confirm the last time they posted, what has been known about that person, what has been published about that person, they contact other family members and friends to verify in fact that the information reported is real,” she said. “This process is quite slow compared to the number of reports that come in, because there are other relatives who do not want to talk, relatives who are afraid.”

Cantera adds that regular internet outages, which she calls “a government tool for censorship”, also make the verification process slow going, but “we hope at some point to get to verify all of them.”

Of the 805 detainees, 373 are confirmed as being detained at a known location. A further 248 are listed as “En excarcelación” or released, though activists say that number includes people who are under house arrest.

A further 173 people described as being “en proceso de verificación,” meaning their current whereabouts are unknown. The vast majority in this category have been reported detained in connection with the protests, while some are described as having been caught up in “criminal investigations.”

Ominously, 39 people included on the list are confirmed or suspected of being “desapariciónes forzadas” — forced disappearances.

“The people who are in enforced disappearance are people whose whereabouts are still unknown,” Cantera says. “That means that that person has not been allowed to make a call, or that person is detained in a place and we don’t know where they are because he or she does not appear in the records … We are not trying to say that these people have died, [but] they are people whom to this day we do not know where they are.”

The Cuban government has remained tight-lipped about the exact numbers of people who have been detained, missing or charged following the protests. The regime did disclose that one person had died as a result of the protests, but the opposition group Cuba Decide estimate the number of deaths is at least five.

Havana has also blamed the protests on supposed agitators from the Cuban diaspora in South Florida, as well as the US government. While the list of detainees includes opposition activists, others are described as “unemployed” or “housewife”. Katherine Martin is listed as a “student and model”, while her sister Miriam is described as a manicurist.

The efforts of Cantera and her cohorts have drawn the attention of Cuba’s security state. While neither she nor her colleagues have been detained or arrested, Cantera told The Post that one of the “verification girls,” as she calls them, has been placed under police surveillance.

“What they do is that they put a police patrol outside her house and don’t let her out, and that person is still under police surveillance to this day,” she said. “We also know that some officers have been visiting some of the detainees who have already been released, asking them about lists, we know that in some interrogations of detainees inside the facilities, they asked about the list, and who was making the list.

“So we know that, yes, it is a subject that has come out of the interrogations; but, well, to this day none of us has been detained or called for a summons, nor have we been summoned for this work,” Cantera added, saying that such a summons was “something that we do not rule out happening at some point, either.”

Meanwhile, the Cuban regime has sought to loosen restrictions in an effort to tamp down public unrest. Three days after the protests, the government announced it was lifting caps on the amount of food and medicine travelers could bring into the country, a move Cantera called “a small Band-Aid for all the problems we have here.”

“The Government of Cuba is denying access to human rights observers and is counting on the world to turn a blind eye to its repression. But we will not look away. This is repression,” a State Department spokesperson told The Post Tuesday. “We join the families who are suffering and scared, Cuba’s human rights defenders, and people around the world in calling for the immediate release of all those detained or missing for merely exercising their human rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and demanding freedom. We are also joining efforts to catalogue and raise awareness about specific instances of abuses against peaceful protestors.

“Violence and detentions of Cuban protesters and missing independent activists remind us that Cubans pay dearly for freedom and dignity,” the spokesperson added. “We call for the immediate release of those wrongfully detained.”

The Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC, did not return requests for comment by The Post.

One month after the July 11 protests, Cantera says the overwhelming feeling in Cuba is “a lot of fear” among people who worry about the consequences of speaking out.

“I have a friend who had never had any kind of behavior on social networks and she posted something, as she was quite outraged about what had happened,” she recounted. “But afterwards, she was very afraid of having written that, in fear for her own well-being and that of her family. So, there is fear even of writing a post on Facebook.”

Cantera said her friend’s fears were well-founded, as the Cuban government has gotten into the habit of checking people’s Facebook pages in order to ascertain their “social and moral behavior” during the protests and their aftermath.

“One of the things everybody thought after July 11 was that that would be it, that the government was going to come to its end, that the totalitarian system was going to fall,” she says. “But the reality is that days have gone by and that, well, has not happened and I don’t believe that it will happen as soon as we were expecting it to.”

Meanwhile, those who took part in the protests, were arrested, and were either released on bail or to house arrest, have suffered what Cantera calls “a terrible trauma from the violence they experienced, either in the protests or in the prisons and in the police stations.

“So, there is a terrible fear,” she said.

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