Two Black Fridays ago – on November 25, 2016 – Cuban dictator Fidel Castro finally died. Two years later, the pro-democracy activists at the forefront of the fight for freedom lament that little in Cuba has changed for them, and what has changed has worsened.
In the immediate aftermath of current dictator Raúl Castro’s November 26 announcement of the death of his brother, the Cuban exile community celebrated with a global sigh of relief; geopolitical experts identified an opportunity for a new era in the island’s history.
“With Fidel’s death, the political and economic situation will probably open up,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue group, told PRI at the time, expressing the general sentiment among pro-corporation optimists. An analysis by the Aspen Institute warned the United States not to “bully” the repressive Castro regime in the immediate aftermath, proclaiming, “there is no counter-revolution in Cuba. It’s not as if the Castro family has been suppressing thousands of anti-socialist Cubans.”
Speaking to Breitbart News, leaders of the Cuban counter-revolution – which, contrary to the Aspen Institute analysis, does exist – lament that any opportunity to ease the repression of dissident voices in the country appears to have passed without incident. Both Fidel Castro’s death and the substitution of Raúl Castro as the Revolution’s international envoy with loyalist Miguel Díaz-Canel in April have done little for political freedom in the country, they agree.
“The situation in Cuba for dissidents remains very similar to that which we had during Fidel Castro’s life, and in some ways is even worse,” José Daniel Ferrer, the General Coordinator of one of Cuba’s largest dissident groups, the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU),” told Breitbart News. “The current dictator, Miguel Díaz-Canel … takes orders directly from Raúl Castro [and] leaves clear who truly wields power.”
“Following the death of Fidel, the repressive system remains intact,” Carlos Payá of Cuba’s Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) told Breitbart News. “Arrests continue, sometimes for a few days and sometimes prolonged [arrests] like that of Eduardo Cardet.”
Eduardo Cardet, the head of the MCL, was arrested shortly after Castro’s death for allegedly refusing to sign a government-mandated condolence book for the late dictator during the state’s forced nine-day mourning period. The government convicted Cardet of allegedly attacking Cuban state security officers despite no witnesses corroborating the claim.
On the contrary, Cardet’s wife and children, who witnessed the arrest, said police brutally beat him in public after suspecting him of criticizing the condolence books. The court did not accept their testimony. Cardet is currently serving a three-year prison sentence, deprived of medical attention despite suffering from chronic asthma.
Payá told Breitbart News that the government’s “harassment against his [Cardet’s] family is constant. He has already earned a provisional release according to Cuba’s own laws and, on the contrary, they take increasingly coercive measures against him [in prison.”
“He is more than a prisoner, he is a hostage of the regime,” Payá concluded.
As the head of one of Cuba’s largest dissident groups – and one of two prominent dissidents suffering an extended arrest for not mourning hard enough in the aftermath of Fidel’s death, the other being visual artist Danilo Maldonado Machado, known as “El Sexto” – Cardet’s case has become a rallying cry for freedom on the international stage. Yet his is far from the only example of such continued repression.
The arbitrary arrest of dissidents remained a common harassment tactic throughout 2018. These arrests, unlike the Cardet case, often last for only days or hours. Police will brutally beat dissidents, often in public, and “disappear” them for hours before releasing them hours from their home with no way of getting back. In October, the NGO Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) documented over 200 arbitrary arrests, most targeting groups like UNPACU, MCL, and the Ladies in White, a dissident group whose sole act of protest is attending Catholic Mass on Sundays. Nearly every Sunday, police arrest and beat their leader, Berta Soler, in public.
“We have on the island over 120 political prisoners, among them about 50 activists with UNPACU; arbitrary detentions continue, often violently; political prisoners are tortured and beaten; our homes continue to be attacked and robbed by the repressive forces of the tyranny,” Ferrer told Breitbart News.
Activists within the Cuban exile community who use sources on the island to document human rights abuses and demand an international response agree that dissidents remain under assault in post-Fidel Castro Cuba.
“There have not been any significant changes in Cuba in terms of economic and political freedom after Fidel Castro’s death … because we have to understand that Fidel Castro installed a system, not just a government,” Orlando Gutiérrez-Boronat, national secretary of the Assembly of Cuban Resistance, which operates out of Florida, told Breitbart News. “Many of the key people who helped him install it are still in power, starting with Raúl Castro, who as First Secretary of the Communist Party still runs the country.”
“As long as the system remains in place through the absolute hold on power of the intelligence and security services, the Armed Forces and the Communist Party, there will not be any change in Cuba or in any of the Latin American countries, such as Venezuela, occupied by that heinous regime,” Gutiérrez-Boronat warned.
Just as the situation has changed little, so too has the Cuban regime’s response to pressure to change. Last week, the Cuban government issued a stern rebuke of the European Parliament’s call to release Cardet. In Cuba, they claimed, “there are no raids, arbitrary detentions, acts of harassment or intimidation, there are no ‘disappeared’ [people], no tortured, and no political prisoners.”
Shortly before Fidel Castro’s death, Raúl Castro made a remarkably similar statement during a press conference with then-President Barack Obama. Responding to Cuban-American journalist Jim Acosta’s question on whether Castro would free political prisoners as part of a failed attempt by the White House to thaw relations between the two countries, Castro simply replied, “what political prisoners?”
The chronic refusal to acknowledge its crimes against humanity has triggered a global effort to bring the Castros to justice. UNPACU’s members continue to engage in peaceful acts of resistance, like hunger strikes, to call attention to the nature of the regime. On Wednesday, the group launched a campaign to bring the Castro family and its lackeys before the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has jurisdiction over war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.
The Assembly of Cuban Resistance has similarly worked for much of the year on collecting signatures within the exile community to bring the Castros before the ICC or any other international tribunal. MCL continues to fight for justice not only for Cardet, but for his predecessor, the founder of the group, Oswaldo Payá. Payá died in a car “accident” in 2012 after Cuban government agents rammed his car off a dark road.
Payá’s death and that of fellow activist Harold Cepero in the crash are two of an estimated 11,000 deaths attributable to the Cuban Revolution, not counting soldiers killed in dubious military activities in places like Angola or the untold number of balseros, or “rafters,” who drowned attempting to escape to the United States. Some estimates put the latter number as high as 78,000 people.
“Change in Cuba is not just a political issue, it’s a matter of life and death for Cuba,” Gutiérrez-Boronat argues. “Under Communism, Cuba has become the only Latin American country with a negative birth rate, with the highest suicide and abortion rates in the Hemisphere, with the highest alcoholism rates in the region, with a youth population that wants desperately to emigrate in order to get away from the country’s shipwreck.”
“The regime doesn’t even have the most minimal will to change towards democracy and knows that, before the growing demands of the dissidents and an ever increasing number of disaffected citizens, the only formula that has been effective for them has been repression and the fear that it generates,” Ferrer posits. “The regime knows that, when it stops repressing, it will lose the control it has over its people who desire to live in freedom with rights.”
Just as the regime has changed little since Fidel’s rise, so too will the resistance fail to buckle under the pressure, Ferrer tells Breitbart News: “Amid this complex and difficult situation, we continue to inform, equip, and train more and more citizens to use non-violent struggle to conquer the rights and freedoms currently trampled.”