Editor’s note: Nat Hentoff collaborated with his son, Nick Hentoff, on this week’s column, which is the first of a two-part series.
On Dec. 10, 2014, the Cuban government marked the 64th anniversary of international Human Rights Day with sweeping nationwide arrests of pro-democracy dissidents. One week later, on Dec. 17, President Obama announced that the United States and Cuba had agreed to begin the process of normalizing relations.
The agreement, reached after 18 months of negotiations, included plans to reopen the U.S. and Cuban embassies in Havana and Washington, D.C., and a promise by President Obama to advocate for an end to the economic embargo of Cuba. In exchange, Cuba released 53 political prisoners on a list presented by the U.S. negotiators.
The Cuban government’s response at each stage in the process of reconciliation has been a steady escalation in the arbitrary harassment, abuse, arrest and detention of Cuba’s pro-democracy dissidents.
Human Rights Watch reports that “the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) – an independent group the (Cuban) government views as illegal – received over 7,188 reports of arbitrary detentions from January through August 2014, a sharp increase from approximately 2,900 in 2013 and 1,100 in 2010 during the same time period.”
Before CCDHRN’s blog stopped being updated in June, its monthly arrest reports reflected that Cuban security police had made over 2,000 detentions for peaceful political activity since President Obama announced the normalization of relations in December 2014.
“Detention is often used pre-emptively to prevent individuals from participating in peaceful marches or meetings to discuss politics,” Human Rights Watch noted in its 2015 report on Cuba. “Other repressive tactics employed by the government include beatings, public acts of shaming, and the termination of employment.”
Yilenni Aguilera Santos is a member of the Damas de Blanco (“Ladies in White”) protest movement, a group of wives and family members of former and current political prisoners. On June 22, 2014, she reported suffering a miscarriage following a severe beating by Cuban security police during her detention in Holguin.
On Sept. 27, 2015, the website Diario de Cuba reported that the 21-year-old daughter of Damas de Blanco member Daisy Basulto was arrested, violently stripped, forced to urinate in front of police officers and then held in a cell at a police station in Cotorro, where she was exposed to a toxic chemical that made her ill.
The Cuban government prides itself on the excellence of its free nationwide health-care system. But it maintains an “overcrowded,” “unhygienic” prison system, where “unhealthy conditions lead to extensive malnutrition and illness,” according to Human Rights Watch. Inmates “who criticize the government, or engage in hunger strikes and other forms of protest, are subjected to extended solitary confinement, beatings, restrictions on family visits, and denial of medical care.”
During the Castros’ 2003 crackdown on pro-democracy dissidents, 10 independent librarians were among the 75 dissidents sentenced to 20 years or more in prison and forced to serve their terms in isolation cells 3 feet wide by 6 feet long.
Kevin Sullivan, writing in 2004 for the Washington Post, reported that at least 20 of the 75 dissidents “are seriously ill in Cuban prison cells.” According to Sullivan, “a picture emerged of inhumane prison conditions and continued harassment of the dissidents’ families by Cuban security agents.”
The conditions of confinement for political prisoners in Cuba have changed little since 2004. Alexander Roberto Fernandez Rico, one of the 53 prisoners released by Cuba in December, was arrested in April 2012 for shouting anti-Castro slogans while witnessing the police beating of a bus passenger. By the time he was released from prison, following a lengthy hunger strike, he was blind.
The Guardian newspaper reported that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, while attending the official flag raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Aug. 14, “insisted that Cubans should be reassured that a return to diplomatic relations with Washington would result in the country’s leaders being held to account over their human rights record.”
Meanwhile, Cuban dissidents were barred from attending the public ceremony at the insistence of Cuban authorities.
On Sept. 30, Carlos Manuel Figueroa Alvarez – who was arrested at a Human Rights Day protest in 2013 and was one of the 53 prisoners released – shouted, “Down with Raul!” as he climbed over the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. His efforts to seek the protection of U.S. authorities were rebuffed as he was forced off the embassy grounds by U.S. security personnel and turned over to Cuba’s security police.
His current whereabouts are unknown.