Guilty by Association: Increased Targeting of Family Members in Cuba

The Cuban government has a long-standing policy of targeting the children and other family members of church leaders and activists who it deems to be a problem; one of many tactics designed to ratchet up the pressure on them.

Religious leaders are increasingly standing up to government pressure and becoming bold in their efforts to defend religious freedom in the country, as the Cuban government’s Office for Religious Affairs (ORA) cracks down on unregistered religious groups and other groups that it perceives to be unsupportive of the government.

CSW’s latest report on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Cuba reveals that the death of Fidel Castro in November 2016 failed to mark any significant improvements to FoRB in Cuba; instead, the arbitrary detention, harassment, restriction and surveillance of religious leaders and adherents has continued throughout the first half of 2017, as has the confiscation of church properties. In addition, several cases of family members of church leaders and activists singled out for harassment and discrimination have been brought to CSW’s attention in recent months.

Dalila Rodríguez González

Dalila Rodríguez is the adult daughter of the FoRB defender Leonardo Rodríguez Alonso. She is a Christian and a qualified university professor who has been subject to constant harassment of varying forms for several years because of this familial connection.

Dalila was regularly harassed in her former workplace, the Marta Abreu Central University in Las Villas, from 2015 to 2017. She has been interrogated on numerous occasions, and learned from colleagues that her department chief was covertly questioning students and other professors with the intention of finding problems with her performance as a professor.

On 5 December 2016, Dalila discovered that her university e-mail account had been hacked and compromising e-mails had been sent out in her name. Despite the fact that the e-mail had been sent from a computer outside of her department, and that she had followed correct procedure in reporting the hack, Dalila was threatened with expulsion by the University rector due to her association with FoRB defenders such as her father and Mario Félix Lleonart Barosso, who the government labelled ‘counter-revolutionaries’.

The expulsion finally took place on 11 April 2017 and Dalila was removed from university premises and warned not to return. Aware that the expulsion violated a number of regulations, Dalila presented a complaint to the Ministry for Higher Education, but was informed that the ministry had ratified the decision on 2 June.

Families of the Ladies in White

The Ladies in White are an opposition movement comprising the wives and other female relatives of jailed dissidents. Many Ladies in White are arrested on a weekly basis to prevent them from attending Sunday Mass. In recent months, the family members of several of these women have been cruelly targeted.

On 8 January, two policemen detained and interrogated the son and grand-daughters (one of whom was pregnant) of Norma Cruz Casas in  Havana. The policemen threatened to make her son disappear. Months later, on 2 July, police again threatened Norma’s son, this time with the confiscation of his car.

On 27 March, Daisy Artilles del Sol was released in handcuffs in front of her 79-year-old mother, who has high blood pressure, heart problems and diabetes. This took place in Havana and appears to have had the premeditated intention of making her mother panic.

Harassment in Primary Schools

This government tactic has not been limited to adult relatives. One Protestant pastor reported that teachers at his daughter’s primary school constantly attempted to involve her in political and cultural activities that did not coincide with her family’s faith. At the same school, one of the teachers defended other students when they would bully the pastor’s children about their beliefs, claiming that Christians were incapable of defending themselves.

A similar case is that of Pastor Ramon Rigal and his wife, who decided to home-school their children because state school teaching which emphasizes a Marxist-Leninist atheist ideology conflicts with their Christian faith. Pastor Rigal’s daughter was also bullied and reported being punched in the stomach by another student. Their decision was not well received by the State, who sentenced the pastor to one year in a correctional facility and his wife to one year of house arrest on 25 April. Pastor Rigal’s sentence was later reduced to one year’s house arrest on 6 July, provided his children return to state school in September.

The Cuban Government sees the children and families of activists and religious leaders as potential ‘weak spots’ and the targeting of these innocent individuals represents the extent to which the government will go to repress FoRB in Cuba.

The fact the Fidel Castro’s death does not appear to have changed the situation of religious groups in the country may be unsurprising to many, as the necessary structural changes have still not been observed. Without these, violations of religious freedoms will certainly continue, regardless of the approaching handover of power in 2018.

Click here to read CSW’s latest Cuba report, August 2017

By Ellis Heasley, CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Assistant