The ongoing crackdown has shaken this country’s Cuban-exile community, which remains deeply connected to the island. Relatives and friends are desperate to know if their detained loved ones are safe. Many wonder if they’ll ever hear from them again.
“The families are worried and afraid because they know what can happen in a Cuban prison,” said Gus Garcia, co-founder of the Miami nonprofit Movimiento Democracia. “They’re terrified.”
With Internet access still limited by government censorship and cellphone coverage unreliable, even unconfirmed news is hard to come by. So people stitch together clues as best they can.
Linares has been sifting through social media accounts looking for mentions of her son, who works in information technology at a hospital. She’s asking friends both in the United States and Cuba for any details on detainees who have been released and may have seen the 29-year-old in jail in Havana.
One man who was released told her during a brief conversation three weeks after his own arrest that Dominguez needed medical attention “because he was short of oxygen and in poor condition.” Dominguez’s wife, who is pregnant with their second child, got nowhere when she went to the prison where another detainee had said he was being held.
“That’s all we know,” his cousin, Oledys Linares, said several days ago. From Miami, she had been following his real-time video the day of the protests up until the moment he was grabbed by someone in a green uniform.
“It’s so frightening to think of what could happen to him,” added Oledys, who left Cuba a decade ago. “Our faith is strong, but this is very hard.”
The calls for democracy and significant political change have come from across the island — an unprecedented challenge to President Miguel Díaz-Canel, the first non-Castro leader in 62 years. Rallies also have decried the lack of food and medicine in many communities, an issue linked in part to decades-old U.S. sanctions. Smaller protests that disperse quickly when police arrive are continuing to take place, Garcia said.
Alian Collazo, who helps run an assisted-living facility in Tampa, knows two friends who were in custody at some point. He’s heard they were killed by the government, though word of their deaths — like much of the news from Cuba — was unofficial and thirdhand from Collazo’s grandmother, who is friends with the grandmother of one of the men.
“They were artists,” said Collazo, who came to the United States illegally when he was 8, riding in a boat with his mother and dozens of other Cubans. He’s now 26 and a member of LIBRE Initiative, a U.S.-based group that supports “a free and prosperous” Cuba.
“To say I have anxiety is putting it mildly. If your family is there, you don’t know if tomorrow, they’re going to go to your grandmother’s house and take her, or take your brother or sister, and you’re in America, and what can you do?” he said. “It’s traumatic.”
Amalia Dache, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania who was born in Cuba, learned last week that one of her cousins was detained but is now free. She messaged with him online, getting details of his time in prison.
“They put him in a cell with another prisoner who has coronavirus,” Dache said. “They didn’t give them masks, they didn’t give them food for 48 hours. He’s sure they were trying to give him the virus. The conditions in the jail are horrific, very inhumane.”
A niece remains unaccounted for, but whether she’s still being held or simply unable to call is unclear.
“That’s another problem, because so many of the protesters are from marginalized communities, they don’t have phones or access to the Internet,” said Dache, who noted that a large percentage of participants are Black and poor. They reflect the Afro-Cuban origins of the unrest, in an artist’s barrio in Havana known as San Isidro.
“It takes a lot of courage and strength for the Cuban people to be in the streets and face prison and jail time and being beat up,” she said. “But my cousin is ready to go out there again today. He said we’re going to keep on fighting.”
Activists and lawyers in Miami’s Cuban community are doing what they can to help through legal representation, and donations of cellphones and cards with prepaid minutes for calling.
When Cuban-Spanish chess player Arian Gonzalez, 35, was taken into custody after a demonstration — he was on the island visiting his grandmother — many in the international chess community went on social media to pressure the Spanish government to intervene. Among the most prominent figures who spoke out: former world champion Garry Kasparov, who currently chairs the Human Rights Foundation.
Gonzalez was released to house arrest after 11 days and now faces a trial for the crime of “disrespect,” according to a local media report.
“We have another young man who’s a soccer fanatic, and he loves the Brazilian team, so we’re trying to get the team to put some pressure on so we can get him out,” Garcia said. “You have to be creative sometimes and take help wherever you can find it.”
Cubalex, a U.S.-based human rights organization, and other groups are putting together lists of people detained or unaccounted for at this point. Miami attorney William Sanchez is working with Garcia to gather statements from family members about their last contacts with relatives. So far, he said, they have 500 names. Getting them legal help is difficult, though. “We have no jurisdiction there,” he said.
Sanchez’s work is personal as much as professional. He was born in the United States after his parents fled Cuba at the beginning of Fidel Castro’s revolution. His uncle was executed by the military.
He and his fellow volunteer lawyers have already filed nine petitions to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights with the Organization of American States. More are coming, though the work is slow.
“It’s been really difficult to get through to people in Cuba. And getting information is difficult,” said Sanchez, a Democrat hoping to challenge Republican incumbent Marco Rubio in next year’s U.S. Senate election. “People fear getting beaten. Some have had the phones ripped out of the walls of their homes. Families are clearly scared for their own lives.”