‘Terror’: Crackdown After Protests in Cuba Sends a Chilling Message

‘Terror’: Crackdown After Protests in Cuba Sends a Chilling Message
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‘Terror’: Crackdown After Protests in Cuba Sends a Chilling Message

‘Terror’: Crackdown After Protests in Cuba Sends a Chilling Message

The courage shown by many Cubans when they took to the streets two weeks ago chanting “Down with dictatorship!” and “We are not afraid!” curdled in fear for many. Hundreds of people have been arrested, police have staked out the homes of activists, and among government critics there is a widespread feeling that the crackdown is far from over.

Maykel González, a freelance journalist detained after the July 11 protests, has rarely ventured out of his home in recent days, frightened by the surveillance and harassment other protesters face.

“At any time, they could come to my door,” said Mr. González, 37. “It’s a fear that accompanies me from the moment I wake up.

When Cubans, spurred on by a severe economic crisis, erupted in a rare wave of public rallies, government critics on the island and abroad hoped the act of defiance would force the island’s authoritarian rulers out. adopt political and economic reforms.

Instead, the authorities’ response has been draconian. State media denounce the protesters as vandals and looters. The police went door to door to carry out detentions.

It is estimated that 700 people are in government detention. In some cases, their families have spent days not knowing where their relatives were being held or what their legal status was. In others, protesters have been convicted in speedy trials that do not require the presence of a defense lawyer, according to human rights activists.

The repression has paralyzed, at least for now, the rebellious spirit that settled on the island for a few hours this past Sunday as thousands of Cubans chanted “Freedom!” “

And fear is the dominant sentiment among many who protested.

“There is a fierce campaign to portray them all as delinquents,” said Elaine Díaz, founder of Periodismo de Barrio, an independent media outlet that has published videos and podcasts with first-hand testimonies from detained protesters. “We have gone from a state of fear to a state of terror.

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In interviews, those who protested and their relatives described panic-stricken conversations inside homes and among neighbors about the shape the crackdown could take in the coming days. Cubans employed by the state worried about their job security. Those with relatives detained expressed fear that speaking out could result in harsher treatment for their loved ones.

“This practice of detention sets people an example,” said Laritza Diversent, director of Cubalex, a Cubalex-founded human rights organization now based in the United States that provides legal aid to dissidents. “The rest of society is prevented from participating in new protests. “

Cuban authorities were taken by surprise by the scale and scale of the July 11 protests. President Miguel Díaz-Canel called on government supporters to take to the streets, explicitly calling “a call to fight”.

The next day, the president adopted a more conciliatory tone, acknowledging the hardships and distress that many Cuban families experience. The protests were fueled by an economic crisis that worsened when the pandemic shut down tourism, leaving many Cubans unemployed and hungry.

Cuban government officials say all investigations and detentions stemming from the July 11 protests – which included looting, attacks on police officers and acts of vandalism – were carried out legally.

“In Cuba, there are no secret prisons,” Colonel Victor Alvarez Valle, a senior Interior Ministry official, said in an interview broadcast on a state television channel. He said Cubans who have been detained following the protests have been allowed to communicate with their relatives and will have access to defense lawyers.

But the focus of the state’s response has been punitive, human rights activists said.

Ms Diversent said that on Monday, her group and others had identified 699 credible reports of detentions linked to the July 11 protests – and that is an incomplete account of the legal fallout.

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Several families said they were distressed at the lack of information about the location and legal status of their loved ones.

Alberto Turis Betancourt, 43, said he and his sister Dailin Eugenia Betancourt spontaneously joined the crowd of protesters who were pouring into the dilapidated streets of Old Havana that Sunday chanting anti-government slogans.

Mr Betancourt said he hid in a house following a fight with pro-government protesters who spat at him. When the streets calmed down, he realized that his 44-year-old sister was missing. It took six days for the family to learn that Ms Betancourt was in custody on charges of misconduct.

“My sister does not belong to any opposition group and does not have a criminal history,” Mr. Betancourt said. “She’s just an ordinary Cuban.”

In recent days, Mr Betancourt has struggled with the risk of speaking publicly about his family’s plight. His wife works as a nurse and fears it will jeopardize his job, he said; she also berated him for sharing information about the case on Facebook. Even the neighbors urged him to keep a low profile and shut up.

“But she’s my sister, what am I supposed to do?” Mr. Betancourt said in a telephone interview. “They locked her up and I’m taking care of her two children.

Immediately after the July 11 protests, veteran opposition leaders who had spent years in the crosshairs of the Cuban police apparatus said they hoped fear had lost its long and narrow grip on it. Isle.

But Annia Zamora, 53, seemed more desperate than optimistic as she recounted the events that led to the arrest of her husband, Armando Abascal Serrano, who belongs to the opposition group Partido por la Democracia Pedro Luis Boitel. The family still do not know what charges he is facing, she said.

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“The Cuban people are courageous, but the repression at the moment is very strong and the effect is being felt,” she said. “There are still families who do not know where their loved ones are. “

Among those arrested were Yarian Sierra Madrigal and Yéremi Blanco Ramírez, two evangelical pastors from the Iglesia Bíblica de la Gracia in Matanzas, a port city east of Havana. They have been under house arrest since July 24. Jatniel Pérez, a fellow pastor, called their detention puzzling and alarming.

“They are not prone to the problems,” Pérez said. “Whatever they did, they did it following their heart. “

Mr. González, the journalist, still deals with the events of July 11. After the government shut down internet access in much of the island that day, he took to the streets, intending to document what was happening to his media outlet, Tremenda. Note, which focuses on marginalized communities.

“But once there, I let myself be carried away by this snowball which was rolling down the slope and I joined the demonstration like any other demonstrator,” he said.

When the group he was with approached Revolution Plaza, an iconic and heavily guarded site in the capital, uniformed officers handcuffed him, he said.

While being dragged to a vehicle, a police officer pulled him by the hair, causing his glasses to fall to the ground. Mr. González, myopic, begged the officers to let him pick them up. Instead, an officer threw away the glasses.

“There is only one way to read this,” he said. “Their intention was to punish, to do harm. “

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