President Barack Obama’s “normalization” policy towards dictator Raúl Castro and the death of the latter’s elder brother Fidel have put Cuba on the road to tallying over 10,000 politically-motivated arrests in 2016, according to an NGO tracking human rights violations on the island.
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) has released its monthly report for November, documenting 359 politically-motivated or arbitrary detentions of political dissidents on the island. The group, which releases a detailed chart of every individual arrested for political reasons in Cuba every month, has documented 9,484 arrests in 2016, suggesting that the number could total over 10,000 by the end of the year.
In contrast, CCDHRN documented 8,616 politically-motivated arrests in all of 2015 and slightly more (8,899) in 2014 — the year President Obama announced that he would seek to establish formal diplomatic relations with the Castro dictatorship.
The group’s report adds that in addition to official detentions, Cuban activists on the island alerted them to “10 cases of physical assault, 50 acts of harassment, and one “acto de repudio” — a government-sponsored mob attack against anti-communist dissidents.
The number of arrests in November amounts to nearly half as many as in October (620), largely due to the decision by Ladies in White head Berta Soler to cancel their traditional silent protest in Havana on the last Sunday of the month, arguing that the death of Fidel Castro could embolden the government to take more violent actions against members of her group should they not adhere to the mandatory mourning period for the late despot.
The Ladies in White are a group of wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters of political prisoners, who attend Catholic Mass together in Havana on Sundays dressed in white, carrying the photos of their imprisoned loved ones. They are regularly beaten and arrested for their actions. Soler personally appears in November’s arrest tally three times.
While Ladies in White activists and their allies attending church on Sunday make up a large percentage of those arrested, others are punished for less open opposition to the government. Multiple cases of arrest occurred “just in case”: Jose Díaz Silva and Ubaldo Herrera Hernández, for example, were arrested “to prevent them from appearing in public during mourning activities for Fidel Castro.” They are far from the only ones. One dissident was arrested because “Fidel Castro’s remains were scheduled to be marched through his neighborhood.” Erisbel Benítez Moya remained under arrest at the time of the report’s publication.
Another dissident, Eduardo Pacheco Ortíz, was arrested after a mob attacked him, stoning him and “damaging his glasses and face.” He was arrested for allegedly “celebrating the death of Fidel Castro” during the stoning incident.
Others did even less to merit their detention. Fermín Scull Zulueta was arrested, according to the CCDHRN, for “wearing a t-shirt with the word ‘change’ on it.” Rafael Rio Martí and Maria Secade Dima were arrested for “playing religious music in their neighborhood church.”
Appearing twice on the list of arrests is Danilo Maldonado Machado, known by his artistic name “El Sexto,” a graffiti artist who has dedicated his work to opposing communism. Maldonado was arrested once in mid-November, released, and re-arrested after openly celebrating Fidel Castro’s death and posting a video of his celebrations on Facebook, which included spray-painting the words “he’s gone” on a wall in Havana.
Maldonado was severely beaten and refused asthma medication after the beating caused an asthma attack, according to his mother. He remains in prison, where he has accused police of lacing his food with sedatives to prevent him from shouting “down with the Castros” from his jail cell and inspiring other prisoners. Maldonado is refusing to eat prison food for this reason.
14 y medio, an independent Cuban publication, quotes a statement from the CCDHRN warning that Fidel Castro’s death will do little to improve the situation for dissidents in Cuba. “The death of Fidel Castro, chief architect of the totalitarian form of government imposed on Cuba for almost 60 years, will not give way to reforms to improve the awful civil and political rights situation on the island,” the organization said in a statement. “The repression against peaceful dissidents and against all society will increase, barring a miracle.”