Thousands of people took to the streets in Cuba to peacefully protest over the economy, shortages of medicines, the response to COVID-19, and harsh restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly.
The authorities are looking for the protest “organizers” and “instigators” On 14 July, representatives from the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Interior said on state television that they were investigating individual responsibility for the organization of the protests and the “crimes” committed during the protests. A Colonel representing the Interior Ministry said the majority of those detained were not “revolutionary” (meaning not pro-government in Cuba) and stated that many had previous convictions for a range of crimes, but including crimes that Amnesty International has previously stated are inconsistent with international standards, such as “public disorder.” The Colonel vowed “We will find the organizers, the instigators,” and said that those chanting “Patria y Vida” (a song some associate with sparking the protests) would be considered instigators.
Some activists and independent journalists remain under house arrest: On 15 July, Amnesty International spoke to an independent journalist and an activist in Cuba who had both experienced physical surveillance by uniformed police officers outside their homes and are unable to leave. As previously documented, this amounts to house arrest, and is a violation of international human rights law. Héctor Luis Valdez Cocho, a member of the San Isidro Movement, told Amnesty International he was detained in Sunday’s protests and released on Monday. Since then, he says, police have been surveilling his home 24 hours a day and have told him not to leave.
The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights called on Cuba to release those detained for peacefully exercising their right to protest. Michelle Bachelet expressed concern over the large number of people detained, and called on the authorities to release those detained for peacefully exercising their right to protest.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all journalists detained during the protests. It said authorities had “intermittently blocked dozens of reporters from leaving their homes” and called on the government to allow the press to cover the protests freely and to stop disrupting internet in the country.
Potentially hundreds of people detained: Human rights lawyers at the NGO Cubalex have produced a working list of 136 people – mostly activists and journalists – who have been detained by the authorities or whose location is unknown following Sunday’s protests. The NGO Prisoners Defenders says it has submitted a list of 187 names to the UN.
Internet cuts: The United Nations Human Rights Committee has declared that “states … must not block or hinder internet connectivity in relation to peaceful assemblies.” However, network data from Netblocks has reported that several social media and communications platforms, including Whatsapp, Facebook, and Instagram were disrupted in Cuba from 12 July.
This is not the first time this has happened. Authorities have almost complete control over the internet in Cuba, and as the country has moved online authorities have controlled and censored the internet. In 2019, during the constitutional referendum, the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) similarly found that independent media had been blocked and that ETECSA, Cuba’s only telecommunications company, had changed its censorship techniques.
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, one of the leaders of the San Isidro Movement, who Amnesty International has named prisoner of conscience three times since March 2020, is among those detained, reportedly at Villa Marista (state security headquarters). Prior to the protests, Luis Manuel had posted a video indicating his intention to join the protests.
The Cuban authorities have used the criminal law to imprison and silence alternative voices in the country for decades. Along with arbitrary dismissals from state employment as a tactic to strip people of their livelihood, this has created a profound climate of fear in Cuba for decades.
Sunday’s protest seemed to symbolize a breaking of this fear. Many ordinary Cubans protested for the first time in years over the economic situation, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, lack of medicines and restrictions on freedom of expression.
The San Isidro Movement is one group, composed of artists, academics, LGBTI people and alternative thinkers who have been generating dialogue over harsh restrictions on freedom of expression in the past months and years. They have been constant targets of the authorities’ repression for this.
What will happen next and how have the authorities responded?
While the protests on Sunday were largely peaceful, the authorities deployed police and security forces to disperse and detain protesters. President Díaz-Canel called on “revolutionaries” to confront protesters. Reports of how many are detained range from more than a hundred to thousands. It is reported that at least one person died in the context of the protests. It is unclear if the authorities will release people, or whether the protests will start again.
The Cuban government has attributed the shortages to the longstanding embargo imposed by the United States. The embargo does hinder or limit the possibility of assistance, as Amnesty International has said for decades, and as United Nations experts and others have highlighted in the past and during the COVID-19 response last year. However, the existence of the embargo is no justification for the Cuban authorities’ repressive response to the protests on Sunday.