Amnesty International: Cuba Abusing Ill Afro-Cuban Spiritual Leader Jailed for Protesting Communism

Loreto Hernández García
Facebook/CubaOne Foundation

The global human rights group Amnesty International issued an “urgent” call this week to flood the Cuban Communist Party with demands to free Afro-Cuban Yoruba leader Loreto Hernández García and his wife, Donaida Pérez Paseiro, arrested following the July 11, 2021, protests for allegedly participating in them.

Hernández and Pérez are the leaders of the Association of Free Yorubas of Cuba, which represents believers in the santería faith. Santería, sometimes referred to as Lucumí, is a religion unique to Cuba primarily based on Nigerian Yoruba paganism but with Roman Catholic elements; its adherents often worship Nigerian gods and Catholic saints as one.

The Cuban Communist Party is explicitly atheist and actively represses people of all faiths. Under late dictator Fidel Castro, the communist regime often used regime-friendly santeros to appear tolerant of its Afro-Cuban population; rumors in the Cuban community for decades identified Castro himself as a believer. The Association of Free Yorubas was established in large part as a safe haven for believers in Lucumí who rejected communism and sought to practice their faith outside of the confines created by the Castro regime.

The Cuban Communist Party has a decades-long record of committing human rights atrocities against dissidents, often engaging in more severe abuse of black Cubans. Black Cuban dissidents accuse the regime of overt racism against them, often condemning them for not being “loyal” to the white Castro family for allegedly “liberating” them from capitalism.

Hernández and Pérez reportedly participated in the July 11, 2021, protests, which attracted an estimated 187,000 people to convene in nearly every municipality in the country demanding an end to communist rule. While not unprecedented, the protests that day were the largest simultaneous manifestation of rejection of communism in recent memory; Cubans routinely assemble to demand an end to the 64-year-old authoritarian regime in much smaller numbers. The Castro regime responded to the protests with an “order of combat” urging communist civilians to violently assault their neighbors suspected of disapproving of the regime and organizing door-to-door raids to imprison potential dissidents.

The two Free Yoruba leaders were rounded up alongside possibly thousands of people, though human rights organizations struggle to confirm the true detention tolls given the secrecy of the regime. As Amnesty International noted on Wednesday, both were sentenced to extended terms in prison for dubious crimes, under questionable circumstances with no clear due process.

Hernández is serving seven years in prison for “public disorder” and “disrespect” to communism; Pérez, his wife, is serving eight years in prison for “public disorder,” “disrespect” to communism, and “assault” against an official.

“According to the information available to Amnesty International, they should have never been accused of these crimes,” the organization asserted this week. “The organization highlights that ‘disrespect’ and ‘public disorder’ are charges used frequently in Cuba to limit the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The government also resorts to [using] other charges such as ‘assault’ or ‘damage’ when it intends to repress dissidence illegitimately.”

Amnesty added that, in the particular case of the Free Yorubas, the government had made “no concrete accusations against Donaida [Pérez]” in particular and both were judged in a mass trial with 14 other people whose cases were irrelevant to theirs.

Of particular concern is Hernández’s poor health. Hernández has been diagnosed with diabetes and hypertension and was hospitalized in May, but otherwise has received little to no medical care in prison. According to a source speaking to Amnesty, “Loreto’s state of health is delicate due to complications from diabetes.”

Amnesty International formally declared both dissidents prisoners of conscience and published a letter, addressed to Castro regime figurehead Miguel Díaz-Canel, urging him to free them – meant to be used for supporters of the cause as a template to send to Havana and pressure the regime. The letter demands “immediate and unconditional freedom” for both.

Speaking to the America-based Martí news outlet, José Luis García Pérez, a former political prisoner commonly known as Antúnez and Hernández’s brother, expressed gratitude to the organization for formalizing his brother and sister-in-law’s status as political prisoners. Antúnez spent 17 years in prison for his rejection of communism prior to his release in 2008 and ultimate exile to America.

“His family, his friends, his compatriots, his struggle brothers, we believe that this recognition is very important,” Antúnez told Martí. “It is a recognition of his struggle, it is a recognition of the injustice of his sentence and it is an important source of hope, not just for him, but each and every one of the political prisoners in Cuba.

Cuban dissident Jorge Luis Garcia Perez (L) (also known as Antúnez) greets US President Donald Trump (C), accompanied by Florida Governor Rick Scott (R), upon arrival at Miami International Airport in Miami on June 16, 2017. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Ongoing reports of Hernández’s time in prison detail a marked lack of medical care and severe abuses, including racist abuse against the Yoruba leader. During the incident in May, Antúnez told Martí News that his brother was “handcuffed behind the back, he was strongly shoved by the neck and hauled to the punishment cell [solitary confinement],” with no regard for his extreme illness as a result of chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. At the time, his brother said Hernández had been nursing a days-long fever.

An alarming report from the Assembly of the Cuban Resistance, a coalition of anti-communist organizations on and off the island, accused the guards of shouting racist abuse at Hernández.

“Look black guy, we are tired of you stirring things up in this prison,” the guards reportedly said, vowing, “for every little [protest] sign calling for a general strike that keeps showing up in this prison, for every little ‘fatherland and life’ shout, we’re going to apply it [punishment] to you for [being a] counterrevolutionary and figurehead.”

“Never forget, shitty black guy, that we wipe our dicks with your religion … the only god for us is Fidel and revolution is our religion,” the group quoted the guards as saying. “You and your wife will die in prison.”

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