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‘Terror’: Crackdown after protests in Cuba sends a chilling message

  • Ernesto Londoño and Daniel Politi, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-07-29 14:16:46 BdST

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Protesters march down H Street along Lafayette Park as Cuban-American demonstrators hold a protest calling for the US to support protesters in Cuba, near the White House in Washington, US, Jul 26, 2021. REUTERS/Gabrielle Crockett

The courage many Cubans showed when they poured into the streets two weeks ago, chanting “Down with the dictatorship!” and “We are not afraid!” has curdled into fear for many.

Hundreds are still being detained, advocates say, and an untold number are still being held. The police have staked out the homes of activists. And among government critics, there is a sense that the crackdown is far from over.

Maykel González, an independent journalist taken into custody after the July 11 protests, has ventured out of his home rarely in recent days, frightened by the surveillance and harassment that other protesters are enduring.

“At any moment they could show up at my door,” said González, 37. “It’s a fear that’s with me from the moment I wake up.”

When Cubans, spurred 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 to embrace political and economic reforms.

Instead, the response by authorities has been draconian. State-run media outlets denounce demonstrators as vandals and looters. Police officers have gone door-to-door making detentions.

An estimated 700 people are being held by the government. In some cases, their families went days without knowing where their loved ones were being held, or what their legal status was. In others, protesters have been convicted in quick trials that don’t require a defence lawyer, according to rights activists.

The crackdown has paralysed, at least for now, the rebellious spirit that took hold on the island for a few hours on that recent Sunday as thousands of Cubans chanted, “Freedom!”

And fear is the prevailing feeling among many of those who protested.

“There’s a ferocious campaign to paint all of them as delinquents,” said Elaine Díaz, the founder of Periodismo de Barrio, an independent news outlet that has published videos and podcasts with firsthand accounts from detained protesters. “We went from a state of fear to a state of terror.”

In interviews, people who protested and their relatives described panicky conversations inside homes and among neighbours about what shape the crackdown may take in coming days. Cubans employed by the state fretted about their job security. Those with detained relatives expressed fear that speaking out would lead to harsher treatment for their loved ones.

“This practice of detentions has the effect of making an example out of people,” said Laritza Diversent, the director of Cubalex, a human rights organisation begun in Cuba but now based in the United States that provides legal aid to dissidents. “The rest of society becomes inhibited from participating in new demonstrations.”

Cuban authorities were caught off guard by the scope and size of the July 11 demonstrations. President Miguel Díaz-Canel called on government supporters to take back the streets, explicitly issuing “a call to combat.”

The following day, the president struck a more conciliatory tone, acknowledging the privation and distress many Cuban families are experiencing. The protests were fuelled by an economic crisis that worsened when the pandemic shut down tourism, leaving many Cubans unemployed and hungry.

Cuban government officials say that all investigations and detentions stemming from the July 11 protests — which included looting, attacks on police officers and acts of vandalism — have been conducted lawfully.

“In Cuba there aren’t secret prisons,” Col Victor Alvarez Valle, a senior official at the Ministry of Interior, said in an interview on a state-run television channel. He said Cubans who were detained in the wake of the demonstrations have been allowed to communicate with loved ones and will have access to defence lawyers.

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

Diversent said that as of Monday, her group and others had tallied 699 credible reports of detentions related to the July 11 protests — and that is an incomplete accounting of the judicial fallout.

Several families said the lack of information about the location and legal status of their relatives has left them anguished.

Alberto Turis Betancourt, 43, said he and his sister Dailin Eugenia Betancourt spontaneously joined the throngs of protesters that streamed down the dilapidated streets of old Havana that Sunday chanting anti-government slogans.

Alberto Betancourt said he ducked into a house following a scuffle with pro-government demonstrators who spat on him. When the streets calmed down, he realised that his sister, who is 44, was missing. It took six days for the family to learn that Dailin Betancourt was in custody, charged with disorderly conduct.

“My sister doesn’t belong to any opposition group and has no criminal history,” Alberto Betancourt said. “She’s just an ordinary Cuban.”

In recent days, Alberto Betancourt has wrestled with the risk of speaking publicly about his family’s plight. His wife works as a nurse and worries it could jeopardize her job, he said; she has also admonished him for sharing information about the case on Facebook. Even neighbours have urged him to lay low and keep quiet.

“But it’s my sister, what am I supposed to do?” Alberto Betancourt said in a phone interview. “They’ve locked her up and I’m taking care of her two kids.”

In the immediate aftermath of the July 11 protests, seasoned opposition leaders who have spent years in the cross hairs of Cuba’s police apparatus said they hoped that fear had lost its long, tight grip on the island.

But Annia Zamora, 53, sounded more desperate than hopeful 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 doesn’t know what charges he faces, she said.

“The Cuban people are brave, but the repression right now is very strong and the effect is being felt,” she said. “There are still families who don’t know where their loved ones are.”

Among those detained 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 bewildering and alarming.

“They aren’t trouble-prone,” Pérez said. “Whatever they did, they did following their heart.”

González, the journalist, is still processing the events of July 11. After the government shut down access to the internet across much of the island that day, he hit the streets, intending to document what was happening for his news outlet, Tremenda Nota, which focuses on marginalised communities.

“But once there, I let myself get pulled in by that snowball rolling downhill and I joined the demonstration like any other protester,” he said.

When the group he was with approached Revolution Plaza, an iconic, heavily policed site in the capital, uniformed officers placed him in handcuffs, he said.

As he was being dragged to a vehicle, an officer pulled him by the hair, which caused his eyeglasses to hit the floor. González, who is nearsighted, pleaded with the officers to let him pick up them up. Instead, an officer kicked the glasses away.

“There’s only one way to read that,” he said. “Their intent was to punish, to do harm.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company