Tearing down Cuba’s ‘wall of fear’

No single fundamental human right exists in isolation. There is a significant overlap and interlinking of all rights, exemplified in the relationship between freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. These three rights sit side by side in Articles 18, 19 and 20 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Over the past year, and especially in recent months, these related rights have increasingly come under attack in Cuba, as members of independent civil society including artists and journalists, some of whom identify with a particular religion or belief, have maintained calls for legal and political reform, in particular coalescing around protests of Legal Decree 370 and Legal Decree 349.

Legal Decree 349 came into force in 2018 and gave the government extensive control over all artistic expression on the island, including mandating that any artistic activity had to be approved in advance by the Ministry of Culture. At the time, many Cubans expressed concern that the law would essentially stamp out freedom of expression in Cuba by only permitting the existence of government approved ‘art’. The same year a group of Cuban artists, journalists and academics came together and formed the San Isidro Movement to peacefully and creatively protest official censorship of artistic expression on the island.

One year later, the government went a step further, enacting Legal Decree 370. This law gives the government the right to fine citizens for publishing content on social media which it interprets as critical of the Cuban government or of the state of affairs in the country.

It became clear that rather than listening and responding to the concerns of the San Isidro Movement in regard to Legal Decree 349, the government was doubling down by attempting to extend its surveillance and control over personal opinions expressed by individual citizens.

On their side, members of the artistic, journalistic and academic community refused to fold, and even upped the stakes, continuing to denounce human rights violations, including violations of FoRB, and maintaining their creative and peaceful protests.

The release of the song by a group of Cuban hip hop artists and rappers living both on and off the island ‘Patria y Vida’ (Homeland and Life, a play on one of Fidel and Raul Castro’s favourite catchphrases ‘Patria o Muerte’, Homeland or Death) and an explosive accompanying video, which made direct calls for political and social change was particularly significant

Never one to back away from a fight, the Cuban government has met peaceful protests with threats, violence, and arbitrary detention. 

Three recent cases highlight this repressive response and illustrate how acutely the Cuban government understands and fears the intersection especially between FoRB and freedom of expression.  

Yoel Suárez, an award-winning writer, respected journalist and an evangelical Christian who regularly covers FoRB issues in Cuba has faced consistent harassment by the Cuban government over the past few years. He is currently banned from traveling outside of Cuba, and over the past year he has been arbitrarily summoned for interrogation by State Security multiple times.

Yoel Suarez. Credit: Angel del Castillo

In addition to this, both his mother and his wife have also been summoned, threatened with the loss of their jobs, and pressured to try to ‘influence’ Mr Suárez to persuade him to stop his journalistic work, specifically his coverage of cases involving violations of FoRB. The government has even gone so far as to threaten to remove their young child from his and his wife’s custody.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcantará, an artist and a leader in the San Isidro Movement has repeatedly peacefully protested government violations of freedom of expression. He has been arrested dozens of times in retaliation over the past three years. In April he held a hunger strike in protest of the government’s unjust actions. On April 27, Cuban police and state security forcibly stopped a Roman Catholic priest and lay leader from visiting Mr Otero Alcantará to provide him with spiritual attention, and on May 2 a group of Protestant Christians, including Yoel Suárez, were similarly blocked, in violation of both his and their right to FoRB.[1]

Maykel Osorbo, a Cuban rapper based in Havana, was one of the artists involved in Patria y Vida. Since the release of the song and video, he has been repeatedly threatened and arbitrarily detained by the Cuban authorities.

On April 12 he was beaten up by individuals who claimed to be part of the Abakuá, a centuries old Afro-Cuban secret society which members believe guards sacred religious beliefs, and which has roots in West Africa. State Security agents not only witnessed the attack on Mr Osorbo, which took place in the middle of the day on a public street, but stood by and recorded the beating, which left Mr Osorbo with a broken nose.

The following day, in a video recording posted online, a member of the Abakuá broke secrecy to publicly identify himself as a member of the society and declared that the Abakuá had had no part in the attack on Mr Osorbo. In fact, a number of Abakuá are part of the San Isidro Movement and have been arbitrarily detained.

The attack on Mr Osorbo has led to concerns that State Security agents are impersonating members of the Abakuá to carry out acts of violence. In doing so, they are hijacking the secret society in order to cover up the government’s own involvement in acts of violence against Cuban civilians.  

The Inter American Commission on Human Rights has called for ‘precautionary measures of protection’ for Yoel Suárez, as an individual, and for the members of the San Isidro Movement, as a group.

Despite all of this, these three men and hundreds of others, not just in the artistic community but more broadly within Cuban independent civil society, are not backing down. Inspired in some cases by their faith, and in many cases supported by people of faith, they are continuing to push back at government attempts to control their thoughts and beliefs and the expression of those thoughts and beliefs.

The government’s harsh reaction, ironically, proves to those it is targeting just how much it fears this powerful combination. In attempting to insert its heavy hand into the very heart of its people, the Cuban Communist Party may in fact be tearing down the wall of fear that has held it up for so long. 

By CSW’s Head of Advocacy Anna-Lee Stangl

[1] Shortly after these incidents, Mr. Otero Alcantará was forcibly admitted to hospital. He was released from hospital detention on May 31.