Cuban activists denounce new methods of repression
BY NORA GÁMEZ TORRES
While the new U.S. president's policies on Cuba remain uncertain, the
government in Havana appears to be more nervous about its domestic
opposition than usual, as the island heads into a complicated political
Authorities have expelled students from universities, arrested
dissidents who want to run in the next elections and forced others into
exile. The phones of dissidents and human rights activists also are
tapped, making communication with journalists abroad difficult — all
part of a campaign to crush criticism at a crucial time.
"There is a campaign of annihilation in 2017," said Eliécer Ávila, a
young Havana engineer who founded Somos +. He was reached by phone after
several failed calls by el Nuevo Herald.
A member of his organization, Karla María Pérez González, was expelled
from a university journalism program last month. Ávila, who wants to run
in the next municipal elections, said a police raid of his home seized
almost everything he owned.
"In my house the police were like a moving company. I don't even have a
computer, and I have a borrowed cell. All this limits your ability to
communicate, to exist in politics," Ávila said.
He said the crackdown is part of an attempt to "clear the field for Feb.
24, to eliminate the voices that can undermine the official line."
Cuban ruler Raúl Castro is expected to retire around that date, which
will mark the start of the next legislative session.
That's why the government "is so deeply afraid," said attorney Laritza
Diversent, director of Cubalex, which offers independent legal advice
and has proposed several reforms to the electoral system. Cubalex is not
recognized by the government.
Diversent said she was so concerned about the impact her activism might
have on her 17-year-old son that she decided to ask for political asylum
in the United States. She and several other Cubalex activists recently
left the island for the U.S.
"You can't work when you're afraid of what can happen to your family and
your son," she said by phone from her new home in Memphis, Tennessee,
where she was relocated by an agency that helps refugees. "I am
committed to my work and I love Cuba, but I am a mother."
Diversent, one of the Cuban activists who met with former President
Barack Obama in Havana last year and in Panama in 2015, spoke of the
"paranoia" and "psychological damage" she suffered in recent months at
the hands of state security agents.
"No one can stop them. You are totally vulnerable. You can lose your
home, your freedom," she said.
State security agents in September raided Diversent's home, which served
as the headquarters for Cubalex, seizing computers and case files and
detaining several lawyers. She was later accused of falsifying ownership
papers for her home.
Since the government does not recognize the vast majority of independent
organizations like Cubalex, their members cannot legally rent office
space and wind up operating out of the homes of members or spaces loaned
by others — making them more vulnerable to accusations, for example, of
"illegal economic activity."
Police recently raided the home in the western Pinar del Río province of
Karina Valdés, which serves as the offices of the lay Catholic
Convivencia magazine, and accused her of tax evasion. State security
agents also interrogated magazine director Dagoberto Valdés, who had
denounced an increase in political repression since 2016.
Baptist Pastor Mario Félix Lleonart, who founded the Patmos Institute in
2013 to push for freedom of religion and an interfaith dialogue, said
there is a similar pattern of police harassment at churches and other
organizations that make their space available to his group.
"After we held our meetings … the government showed up to intimidate the
institutions that collaborated with us," Lleonart said. He added that
his group is not legally registered and has no offices, "things that you
can do anywhere in the world."
Lleonart said he believes the government harasses his institute because
it also promotes education about human rights and political work.
"We believe that religious people, aside from exercising their own
freedoms, should influence political leaders and those who govern the
country," he said.
Authorities "are afraid" of that kind of political activism, Lleonart
added, because although "political groups in Cuba are small and
fragmented, religious groups are pretty big, have a much longer history
and are growing a lot.
"Obviously, they know that's a dangerous mass of people," he said.
Lleonart and his family won U.S. political asylum last year after
several violent arrests, but the harassment of members of his group has
not stopped. One of its coordinators, Felix Llerena, was recently
expelled from a university in Havana he was attending to become a teacher.
New repressive tactics
The latest monthly report by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and
National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) tallied 140 political prisoners, twice
the number in most of 2016. The April report also reported 475
politically motivated detentions during the month.
The Cuban government denies the existence of political prisoners and
brands dissidents as traitors and mercenaries paid by U.S. officials. It
does not recognize the CCDHRN, which operates out of its director's home.
The press office at the Cuban embassy in Washington did not respond to a
request for comment on this story.
The CCDHRN's April report also notes that the repression has expanded to
more parts of the island but become "less noisy." Among the mechanisms
mentioned were police threats, bans on travel abroad or even within
Cuba, searches of homes, arbitrary seizures of materials and money,
surveillance and defamation campaigns, and disproportionate fines for
Diversent — who is described as an "anti-Cuban mercenary" in EcuRed,
Cuba's version of Wikipedia — said Cubalex had been studying how
authorities are changing the mechanisms for harassing and repressing
Although the number of politically motivated detentions has been falling
so far this year in comparison to 2016, she said, "the repression has
intensified because they are targeting the private lives of activists.
The home searches, the raids and the threats to relatives have increased."
Heavy fines and "the use of the law for repression purposes" are
frequently used to intimidate activists and dissidents, Diversent added.
The leader of the Ladies in White, Berta Soler, has complained for
months about the heavy fines imposed on members of the dissident
organization. She told el Nuevo Herald by phone from Havana that state
security agents also have threatened some of the women's relatives with
jail. Rey Hanoi Barrueto, 17, the son of member Aliuska Gómez, is in
prison for an alleged brawl although the accuser has disappeared, she added.
Soler, who was scheduled to fly to the U.S. for meetings over the
weekend, was not allowed to board a plane, she said.
This kind of repression, compared to the Venezuelan government's violent
repression of protest marchers, is "covert and invisible," said Diversent.
"We can see what's happening in Venezuela," she said. "But in Cuba, it's
difficult to show the psychological damage caused by all the smears.
They can break down the door to your home.
"Every Sunday, they beat up the Ladies in White, and nothing happens,"
she said. "That winds up affecting you profoundly."
Follow Nora Gámez Torres en Twitter: @ngameztorres
Source: Havana is using new methods to crack down on activists | Miami