Protesters detained in Cuba could face sentences of up to 30 years in prison as they face the largest and most punitive mass trials carried out on the island since the early years of the revolution.
Prosecutors this week indicted more than 60 citizens and charged them with crimes including sedition and participation in demonstrations against the country’s economic crisis over the summer, human rights activists and relatives of those detained said.
Among those charged this week are at least five minors, some as young as 16. They are among more than 620 detainees who have faced trial or are scheduled to stand trial for joining the biggest outburst of popular discontent against the communist government since it came to power in 1959.
The severity of the charges is part of a concerted effort by the government to deter further public expressions of discontent, activists said. The crackdown also dashed hopes of gradual liberalization under President Miguel Díaz-Canel who, in 2018, replaced Fidel Castro’s brother Raúl, becoming the first non-Castro leader to rule Cuba since 1959. .
“What rules is the empire of fear,” said Daniel Triana, a Cuban actor and activist who was briefly detained after the protests. “The repression here does not kill directly, but condemns the choice between prison and exile.”
For six decades, Cuba has lived under a severe US trade embargo. For a long time, the Cuban government blamed the crumbling economy on Washington, diverting attention from the effects of Havana’s mismanagement and strict limitations on private business.
On July 11, an unexpected protest broke out on the island, where thousands of people – many of whom came from the poorest neighborhoods of the country – marched in cities and towns to denounce the inflationary debacle, the power cuts and the worsening of the economy. food and medicine shortages.
The scenes of mass discontent, which were widely shared on social networks, shattered the idea promoted by the Cuban leadership that popular support for the Communist Party remains, despite economic difficulties.
After the initial shock, the government responded with the strongest crackdown in decades, sending in military units to quell the demonstrations. More than 1,300 people were detained, according to the human rights organization Cubalex and Justicia 11J, a working group on politically motivated detentions that brings together Cuban civil society organizations.
The Cuban government did not respond to requests for comment sent through the foreign media office.
The scale of the government’s reaction shocked opposition figures and Cuban analysts.
Cuban leaders always react swiftly to any public discontent, jailing protesters and harassing dissidents. But in the past, crackdowns have often targeted relatively small groups of political activists.
Now, for the first time in decades, the mass trials that began in December are targeting people largely non-political before leaving their homes to join crowds demanding change, historians and activists said.
“This is something completely new,” said Martha Beatriz Roque, a prominent Cuban dissident who was convicted of sedition in 2003, along with 74 other activists, and received a 20-year prison sentence. Finally, their sentences were commuted and most were able to go into exile.
“There is not a drop of compassion left, and that is what makes the difference” from the past, he said in a telephone conversation from his home in Havana.
Yosvany García, a 33-year-old welder, had never participated in protests or had problems with the law, said his wife Mailin Rodríguez. On July 11, he went home for lunch, as is his custom, from his workshop in the provincial capital of Holguín.
But when he returned to work, he was met by a crowd demanding political change, Rodríguez said. Fueled by a wave of outrage over the excruciating cost of living, Garcia joined the march, he said.
The man was beaten by the police who broke up the demonstration that day, but in the evening he returned home with his wife. Four days later, he was cornered by officers near his home and taken to jail.
On Wednesday, Garcia was charged with sedition along with 20 other protesters, including five teenagers ages 17 and 16, the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Cuba. All face sentences of at least five years in prison; Garcia could be sentenced to 30 years.
Rowland Castillo was 17 years old in July, when he was arrested for joining the demonstration in a working-class neighborhood in Havana. A provincial wrestling champion, one of Cuba’s most popular sports, Castillo attended a state sports academy and had never been involved in political activities, according to his mother, Yudinela Castro.
She says that she only found out that the young man had participated in the protest when the police came to arrest him several days later. Prosecutors are asking for a 23-year sentence against him for sedition.
Castro said that after her son’s arrest she was fired from the state food market where she worked. Now she lives off the donations of neighbors and supporters, in an abandoned community first aid clinic with her 2-year-old grandson, Castillo’s son, as he tries to recover from cancer.
“Through him I realized the evils that happen in this country,” he said, referring to his imprisoned son. “He didn’t do anything, he just went out on the street to ask for freedom.”
In 2018, the arrival of 61-year-old Díaz-Canel to the presidency raised hopes for gradual change in some quarters.
The president is not part of the old guard that rose to power with the Castros. In office, he tried to simplify the complicated Cuban monetary system and implemented reforms to expand the private sector in an attempt to ameliorate the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and the decrease in aid from the Venezuelan government. , a socialist ally of the island.
But Díaz-Canel, born after the revolution, could not evoke the anti-imperialist struggles of the Castro brothers to hide the crisis in the standard of living of Cubans. And, when the protests broke out, he reacted strongly.
“They have no intention of changing,” said Salomé García, an activist for Justicia 11J, the political rights group, “of allowing any kind of participation by Cuban society in determining their fate.”
Anatoly Kurmanaev is a correspondent based in Mexico City, from where he covers Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Before joining the Mexico correspondent in 2021, he spent eight years reporting from Caracas on Venezuela and the neighboring region. @akurmanaev