The Cuban government is committing systematic human rights abuses against independent artists and journalists, Human Rights Watch said Thursday as it released a video on the abuses.
In recent months, Cuban authorities have jailed and prosecuted several artists and journalists who are critical of the government. Police and intelligence officers have routinely appeared at the homes of other artists and journalists, ordering them to stay there, often for days and even weeks. The authorities have also imposed temporary targeted restrictions on people’s ability to access cellphone data.
“Singing a song that the government does not like, or reporting the news independently, is enough to get you detained in Cuba,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “These abuses are not isolated incidents, but rather appear to be part of a plan to selectively silence critical voices.”
Between February and June 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone 29 journalists and artists who were victims of abuse and harassment by Cuban authorities in recent months. In many cases, Human Rights Watch conducted multiple interviews with people who were subjected to new abuses. Human Rights Watch also reviewed court decisions, publications by local human rights groups, and media reports, and corroborated videos posted on social media.
Most of the artists and journalists targeted belong to the “San Isidro Movement,” a coalition of singers, painters and other artists, and “27N,” a group of artists and journalists who gathered after a landmark protest against censorship and repression in Havana on November 27, 2020. Victims also include people who have performed in, or even simply played or promoted “Motherland and Life,” a song by Cuban artists in Havana and Miami that repurposes the Cuban government’s old slogan “Motherland or Death” (Patria o muerte), and criticizes repression in the country.
Officials involved in the abuses include members of the intelligence services, known in Cuba as “state security,” and the national police, based on accounts by witnesses and victims, as well as photos and videos reviewed by Human Rights Watch. Intelligence officers normally wear civilian clothing, but at times they identify themselves to detainees verbally or show their credentials. Many government critics said that they are often detained and under surveillance by the same people, leading them to conclude that their harassers are intelligence officers.
Many of the artists and journalists have also been smeared with false accusations on national television. Anchors on the main Cuban news program – which belongs to a state-owned channel and is featured at prime time simultaneously on most TV channels in Cuba – have in recent months falsely accused some of the artists and journalists of “conspiring” against Cuba and being involved in “delinquency.”
The consistent and repeated patterns in the cases Human Rights Watch documented have involved actions by police and intelligence officers at least since the November 27 protest, often against the same victims. The patterns of harassment strongly suggest a plan by Cuban authorities to selectively repress independent artists and journalists, Human Rights Watch said. The targeted restrictions on critics’ cellphone data, as well as the repeated instances of accusations against many of them on public television, are further evidence of the systematic nature of these violations.
The restrictions on movement have been imposed on multiple journalists and artists on the same days, preventing them from participating in demonstrations or meetings. Barring people from leaving their homes for a significant period, barring them from socializing with others, and threatening them with imprisonment if they don’t comply amounts to arbitrary deprivations of liberty comparable with de facto house arrest, Human Rights Watch said.
Cuban authorities have also imposed targeted and temporary restrictions on cellphone data and phone services to members of the “San Isidro” and “27N” groups, often coinciding with the restrictions on movement. When they face such restrictions, some government critics borrow phones from friends and relatives who are not critical of the government and whose service has not been interrupted, they told Human Rights Watch.
Iliana Hernández, a reporter for the independent news outlet Ciber Cuba, has faced such restrictions persistently since April 23. Five officers, including three in civilian clothes, forced her into a police car that day as she headed for a bus stop with some friends. She shouted “down with the dictatorship! Down with communism! Motherland and life!” The officers took her to a police station, where an officer said she was being accused of “contempt” for “offending the figure of President Miguel Díaz-Canel,” apparently because of what she shouted.
The officer told her she would be held as a “precautionary measure,” and forbidden to leave her home until she stands trial. Hernández was never taken before a prosecutor or judge, shown a document indicating she is legally subjected to such a measure, or given a chance to challenge it, she and her lawyer told Human Rights Watch. She has never been formally notified of the alleged “contempt” investigation.
Since that day, several officers have surveilled her home in shifts, 24 hours a day. Normally, five of them are surveilling at any time. Other people who live with her have been allowed to leave the house, but officers have attempted to arrest her every time she tries to leave. Her cellphone data and her home internet have not worked since the beginning of her detention, she said.
In most other cases documented, critics facing such restrictions were never notified, even verbally, that these were connected to an alleged criminal investigation.
Many journalists and artists were arbitrarily detained, often for attempting to leave their homes when they faced restrictions on movement. Police and intelligence officers arrested some artists and journalists repeatedly. In the vast majority of cases, officers did not show an arrest warrant or provide detainees with a reason for their arrest. Most were released after a few hours. In some cases, the officers drove the detainees to unpopulated areas where they held them for hours, or simply kept them in the police car, instead of taking them to a police station, then released them.
Some have also faced longer term arbitrary detention. Maykel Castillo, who had experienced multiple short-term arbitrary detentions and is one of the singers in “Motherland and Life,” was arrested at his home on May 18. His whereabouts were unknown to his family until May 31, when Cuban authorities informed them that he was being held in the Pinar del Río prison. The family was notified a few days after the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances had urged the Cuban government to reveal Castillo’s place of detention.
A court document Human Rights Watch reviewed indicates that he is being investigated on charges of “contempt,” “resistance,” and “assault.” An official Cuban news outlet reported that the charges are connected to an April 4 peaceful protest in Havana, during which a police officer tried to arrest Castillo and a group of local residents defended him, preventing the detention.
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a leading figure in the San Isidro movement and also a singer of “Motherland and Life,” has been routinely arrested or had his movements restricted in recent months. On April 25, he began a hunger strike demanding that the authorities stop harassing him and that they return some paintings they had confiscated during a search of his house on April 17.
On May 2, officers went to his house, handcuffed him, and took him to a hospital, he said. The next day, Alcántara decided to end his strike, fearing that they would force him to eat. He said he remained in detention while hospitalized, in a five square meter room with three security officers always in the room with him. He was not allowed to call anyone and was only allowed four five-minute visits by family members, he said. After threatening to jail him, officers released him, and he left the hospital on May 30. “They told me that if I didn’t behave properly, they could do whatever they wanted with me,” Alcántara said.