The Weight of Repression in 2022 on Cuban Civil Society

Photo: Sadiel Mederos.

The Weight of Repression in 2022 on Cuban Civil Society

30 / diciembre / 2022

The year 2022 ended up consolidating what many people have classified as a withdrawal period for Cuban civil society, after two intense years of social activism and public protests, which reached a high point on July 11, 2021.

State repression against anyone who disagreed with the Communist Party’s policy was ample in 2022. Repression helped break up social movements and silence opposition members who had been leading figures in 2020 and 2021.

This current year drawing to a close was also defined by severe shortages within the wider scheme of widespread crisis in Cuba. Shortages were critical in keeping protests going over time and becoming a common mechanism for the population to demand improvements and their rights.

Protests were so common in 2022 that the Cuban President couldn’t not address them, although not without expressing his contempt for the demonstrators. Protests also rekindled the decision for security forces to stifle them with repression, the most effective course of action they know. This was just as fierce and met with the same impunity as during the July 11th protests in 2021.

Meanwhile, the Cuban State’s repressive actions and economic hardship were a special kind of breeding ground for 2022 to set a new record in Cuba’s history of migration.

What were the main milestones in 2022 for Cuban civil society and the struggle for human rights in the country?

The year began with the exile of two Cuban activists who belonged to the San Isidro Movement. One of them, Esteban Rodriguez, had spent eight months in prison after having led, with another dozen protestors, a protest on Obispo Street, Havana, in April 2021. Rodriguez and Hector Luis Valdes Cocho, a journalist for ADN Cuba, were forced to leave the country as a condition for Esteban’s release from prison.

The journey they embarked on had Nicaragua as their final destination, but while waiting for a connecting flight in El Salvador, airport officials informed them that they had been banned from entering the country governed by Daniel Ortega, one of Cuba’s main allies. This entry ban for Hector Luis and Esteban became a common practice for others over the course of the year.

Months later, a mother (Dayami Valdes) and Valdes Cocho’s partner (Raul Soublett, LGBTIQ+ rights activist) were victims of a similar entry ban when they chose to go into exile. The Nicaraguan Government has proved the existence of a strong cooperation relationship between authoritarian governments in the region to export repression.

Unable to enter Nicaragua, Hector and Esteban were left stranded in El Salvador until this country’s authorities decided to process their asylum request. Hector and Esteban’s forced exile reminds us of the banishment of Hamlet Lavastida and Katherine Bisquet, which had taken place only four months before. However, Rodriguez and de Valdes’ exile was denied by the Cuban Government representative in Geneva, who posted on his Twitter account that Cuba doesn’t kick its citizens out and that human rights activists weren’t being persecuted on the island.

Two other protestors that took to Obispo Street were also released with Esteban, all of whom had remained behind bars until January 2022. A few weeks later, people who had wrongfully been kept prisoner for taking part in this protest for months, were now facing a hefty fine. Many of them decided to emigrate.

Exile and banishment

Having marked the past two years, forcing activists and opposition members into exile continued in 2022. Carolina Barrero, Camila Rodriguez, Iliana Hernandez and Daniela Rojo were just some of the activists that chose exile as a means to be able to continue their work against the Cuban regime or to be able to live a safe life.

While exile does grant activists safety and is a decision that nobody can hold any judgement over, it’s also a valid solution for those in power, as it reduces the ability for civil society to mobilize without having to turn to more expensive political tools, such as prison. In 2022, the Cuban regime also proved that once its citizens go into exile, they can be denied entry back into the country. The entry ban equals banishment, which goes against international human rights Law.

Banishment of many Cubans in previous years was repeated in 2022. Anamely Ramos, a Cuban activist who still holds her legal residency on the archipelago, was denied entry into national territory by Diaz-Canel’s Government. US airline authorities stopped her twice from boarding flights that would take her back to Havana, in theory.

The same thing happened to Omara Ruiz Urquiola just weeks later, who had also been in the US. The Cuban Government banned her from returning. Both Anamely and Omara had become important voices within Cuban civil society and activism against the Communist Party’s leadership.

In November 2022, the Cuban regime stopped journalist, writer, and director of the independent magazine El Estornudo, Carlos Manuel Alvarez, from returning to the island. Thus, proving their intention to keep potentially influential people with leadership skills off Cuban streets.

Ernesto Soberon, director of Consular Affairs and Cubans Living Abroad at the Ministry of Foreign Relations, recognized on a show with activist Carlos Lazo and the US-based professor Arturo Lopez-Levy, that there were in fact Cuban citizens who have been banned from entering the country, “but they’re just a few,” he said. He also added matters of national security as a reason for this decision.

However, exile hasn’t been the only practice Cuba’s repressive apparatus has used to break up civil society and political opposition. Prison has been a solution throughout 2022 for anyone who hasn’t accepted exile or has been used as a means to contain anyone the Government understands as a great threat or just collateral damage.

Punishing dissent

Hundreds of political prisoners who protested on July 11, 2021, remained in prison throughout the year. Some ended up being taken to court and sentenced over these past twelve months.

The definitive sentence for Cubans who also peacefully protested against the repression employed by the State outside of the 11J protests, was also ruled in 2022. In March, the final sentence for Luis Robles was announced: five years behind bars for carrying a sign on San Rafael Boulevard that asked for no more repression and for Denis Solis’ release. It was exactly on San Rafael Boulevard that Carlos Ernesto Diaz (known as Ktivo Disidente) was arrested in April, for standing on a wall and rallying to passers-by. Ktivo was sentenced in November to two and a half years in prison.

Sentences for Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and Maykel Castillo Perez were also ruled in 2022. They were sentenced to seven and ten years in prison, respectively. Thus, the decision to keep the most visible faces of the San Isidro Movement behind bars for an indefinite period of time was confirmed. Otero Alcantara and Castillo Perez had led a historic sit-in, the eviction of which led to the November 27, 2021 protest, in front of the Ministry of Culture office in Havana.

Maykel and Luis Manuel’s prison sentences join those of a group of historic political opposition members who were also taken out of action, using 11J as a pretext. The most famous cases being those of Jose Daniel Ferrer and Feliz Navaro, prisoners of the Black Spring (2003) who were imprisoned in July 2021. Felix Navarro was sentenced in March 2022, along with his daughter and Lady in White, Sayli Navarro, to nine and eight years in prison, respectively.

Jose Daniel Ferrer’s family have complained that he is being kept in solitary confinement and isolated. They recently announced that he is holding a hunger strike.

Political prisoners with less visibility such as Yandier Garcia Labrada, from the Christian Liberation Movement, and Ladies in White, Sisi Abascal and Almara Nieto, also remained in prison throughout 2022. Almara is a mother to two daughters and has been serving a four-year prison sentence since 2018, but in 2022, it was ruled that she would spend another five years and four months in prison for allegedly committing a crime of disobedience in a penitentiary.

Independent journalist, Lazaro Yuri Valle Roca, leader of the Delibera platform, was also given a prison sentence. In July, Cuban authorities sentenced him to six years in prison.

Lazaro Yuri’s case is important, as it proves just how far the Cuban State is willing to go to silence dissident voices. Jail time, which Lazaro Yuri is suffering, or exile were the two options repressive forces offered other independent journalists in 2022.

Almost every independent media platform in Cuba was affected by this new wave of repression against independent journalists. Journalists such as Yadiris Luis Fuentes, Abraham Jimenez Enoa and Yoe Suarez ended up leaving the country in 2022.

Others such as Cynthia de la Cantera, a collaborator at YucaByte, ended up publicly renouncing her work as a journalist, but not without making it crystal clear that she was giving up her profession in response to pressure from State Security.

El Toque has also been affected by this wave of repression. Over a dozen of its collaborators in Cuba were forced to give up their profession. Many of them were exposed on national TV in a horrendous news report that exposed the mechanisms State Security use to break anyone they consider an enemy. Despite this exposure, when many of these collaborators quit, they pointed out the real reasons that led them to give up the profession they had studied at universities controlled by the ruling elite they scorn them. They also pointed out the aggressor and the fact they see non-conforming young professionals as a threat.

Criminal Code and Family Act New legislation

One of the main threats used against El Toque collaborators was the new Criminal Code coming into force, which was passed in May 2022. This legislation marks a milestone this year for civil society and the struggle for individual rights, as it introduces new and strict restrictions on the exercise of human rights, such as freedom of expression, peaceful protest, and assembly.

The Criminal Code came into force on December 1, 2022, and many experts consider it legislation designed to legitimize the Government’s actions that go against its own law or the most basic principles of respect for human rights.

One of the main laws this new legislation introduces is punishment of up to ten years in prison for anyone who engages in acts “against the constitutional order” and with funding from foreign organizations or natural persons. A provision that could be used to punish both independent journalists in Cuba and anyone linked to NGOs receiving funds from anywhere else other than those authorized or filtered by the Communist Party.

The Criminal Code wasn’t the only controversial legislation that came into force in 2022. The Family Act that was approved in a popular referendum was also tinged with heated debate between different civil society actors.

The Family Act was defended by Cuban civil society groups that identify as progressive, and was attacked by those who identify as conservative, people mostly linked to religion. Meanwhile, other actors in the diaspora disagreed with the approval of the Family Act, mainly because they understood the process of voting in the Family Act as an act of pinkwashing on the Government’s behalf to distort its repression and violation of thousands of Cuban’s political rights.

Tthe Family Act referendum took place in September 2022 and was passed with 66.85% of valid ballots, according to official figures. The most breakthrough points in the new Family Act include recognition of same-sex marriage and the chance for homosexual couples to now adopt or benefit from assisted reproduction technology.

Protests, Blackouts and Migration

In 2022, Cuban citizens continued to express their disapproval with the Government’s administration and with the ruling political system in the country. One of the most important legacies from this year is that public protest has become a common practice for the population to claim their rights and make demands to the Government.

Mothers who blocked off the national highway to get the Government’s attention about their housing problems or who beat pots and pans in their neighborhoods and closed off streets with garbage containers demanding the electricity be restored, became common sights (especially between July and August). Others, like Amelia Calzadilla, took to social media and went viral when they spoke about their dreams and dissatisfactions that all Cubans share.

Economic conditions on the island in 2022 led to an energy crisis, and this is turn led to a new cycle of blackouts. Blackouts also led to what we here at elTOQUE call “the darkness revolution.”

It became normal for people in neighborhoods to take to the street and shout: “pongan la corriente pinga” (put the electricity back on, asshole). Cries for electricity were also joined by cries for “freedom” in lots of places.

Freedom was the thing many people wished for after a blackout triggered them to take to the streets, but they understood that the source of their problems lie with a political regime that is only asking them to sacrifice and resist.

This surge in mass protests has also led to stepped up repression. Photos of the town Nuevitas will go down in history books, with Cuban repressive forces attacking children.

Lots of residents in Nuevitas, who protested for many days, ended up being beaten and arrested. Later, some of them appeared on national TV admitting that they belonged to groups funded from foreign countries. A common strategy that proves the Cuban Government’s contempt for due process and basic rights. Disrespect that they try to justify with the “besieged” theory; thus, the need to link any independent expression of civil unrest with foreign interests, almost always based in the US.

Yet again, 2022 also proved that the Cuban regime’s violence has nothing to do with foreign actors, but is in fact part of its nature. Photos of Cepen, a town on the west side of Havana, will also prevail. Locals there tried to leave the country illegally and were brutally repressed by Special Riot Forces belonging to the Ministry of Interior.

This spike in repression and the historic disagreement between Cuba and the US didn’t stop a new rapprochement process between the Biden Administration and Cuban authorities from being publicly announced in 2022. A rapprochement that led many Cuban leaders to accept humanitarian aid from the US – which they’ve never done before-, and to engage in a series of conversations that ended in different pacts (such as accepting Cubans with a deportation order from the US and, it’s likely, the commitment to stop the migration wave that has taken on unprecedented levels).

Over 220,000 Cubans reached the southern US border between October 2021 and October 2022. Mostly via Nicaragua, after the Ortega regime in this allied country agreed to waive visa requirements for Cuban citizens, turning their country into a trampoline.

Meanwhile, a speedboat carrying 26 people onboard which was trying to leave the country from Bahia Honda, also sunk. Originally from the US, the speedboat crashed with a Cuban Coast Guard ship that was chasing it. The Cuban Government has denied its fault in the incident, but lots of survivors said that that they were deliberately charged at by the Coast Guard vessel, resulting in seven people dying in this incident, including a two-year-old baby.

Elections and rejection at the polls

In 2022, Cubans’ resistance and the loss of the Cuban regime’s total supremacy was not only displayed on the streets. It was also revealed in the turnout of processes that the regime has historically used to legitimize itself.

Elections being one of them. There is no competition between different political candidates in the Cuban electoral system, so popular turnout has been key to creating headlines that use the number of participants as a display of popular support for the Revolution and Socialism.

The two voting days held in 2022 had the lowest turnouts ever since 1976, when these kinds of elections were introduced. When it was the Family Act Referendum, and despite Diaz-Canel calling upon the Cuban people to vote “yes”, for the Revolution, 25.88% of the voting population didn’t cast their ballot; which is the equivalent of approximately 2,178,000 people. 33.25% of voters said “no”, which is another 2 million people more or less. Another 6% – some 360,000 people – voided their ballot paper or left it blank. Abstention, voting no or voiding their ballot can be understood as displays of rejection for proposals formulated by the political regime.

But while the Family Act election might have had an additional component that needs to be included in the analysis of votes in support of the system, the municipal elections celebrated in November 2022 proved this growing trend of not taking part in processes that legitimize the regime. If abstention hit a record high during the Family Act referendum, a new record was set just months later with the local elections in November.

Some 32% of the electorate didn’t go to the polls, while another 10% voided their ballots or left them blank. The results show that 42% of the voting population didn’t support an exercise that political propaganda deems the most genuine display of Cuban democracy and the people’s unity when it comes to the Revolution.

These numbers may be indicative of the gap between the ruling party’s proposals and those of civil society.

Now, 2022 ends just as it began, with the Cuban Government exporting repression between its regional allies. On December 19, the Bolivian Government informed Cuban activist Magdiel Jorge Castro – who had been labeled by Cuba’s propaganda apparatus as an “actor controlled by the White House to attack Cuba from Bolivia” – that he’d have to leave the country within 15 days, despite holding legal residency there.

The reason they gave was that Jorge Castro had disturbed public order on social media that, at a first glance, he’d mostly used to complain about the situation in Cuba and not to try and interfere in domestic political affairs in the Andean country.

So, 2022 ends with the combo of a Cuban Government that represses any sign of dissent, while at the same time is incapable of offering prosperity, despite predicting a brighter 2023.

This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.

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