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Stripped naked, beaten, forced to shout ‘Viva Fidel!’: Inside Cuba’s crackdown on dissent

A man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Havana on July 11. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images)

When Cubans took to the streets in July for the biggest challenge to the communist state in decades, Michel Parra joined the electric crowds. “For the first time in my life, I was marching,” the 20-year-old hospital worker said.

But exhilaration turned to fear when men in civilian clothes snatched Parra and his sister from the protest in Matanzas. Hauled to the local Técnico — a feared facility run by Cuba’s state security services — he was taken to an interrogation room. “They were yelling, saying they would shoot me and my family,” he said. “I begged them to stop while they kept calling me a gusano” — a worm, the state slur against anti-communist Cubans.

“They gave me a slap that knocked me to the floor,” Parra said. “I was kicked all over my body. They wouldn’t stop. I was hit in my hands and knees with a baton. For me, it took forever, but maybe it was only 60 seconds. What I know is that I felt pain for 20 days straight.”

One hundred days after the nationwide demonstrations of July 11, when dissidents and ordinary citizens turned out in mass to protest the government’s handling of the coronavirus, energy shortages and the economy, the extent of the police state’s crackdown is becoming clear.

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Massive sweeps by security forces in the hours and days after the protests saw more than 1,000 people detained. Even now, nearly 500 — the most political prisoners held in Cuba in at least two decades — remain behind bars and locked in murky legal proceedings, according to Cubalex, a nonprofit that has monitored the detentions.

In many cases, detainees were subjected to beatings, humiliation and psychological abuse, according to a sweeping report released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch. It provides the most detailed accounting yet of Cuba’s swift shutdown of dissent.

Several of the accounts were confirmed by The Washington Post through independent interviews with detainees who have been released and family members of those who remain jailed. They include prisoners punished for refusing to shout “long live Fidel!”

Of the 130 prisoners whose cases were investigated, Human Rights Watch reports, 48 sustained some form of physical abuse. Such treatment came mostly during the initial hours or days after detention. After that, many detainees were left to languish in crowded cells with poor sanitation and substandard food.

Little is known about the conditions of the hundreds who remain in jail.

The crackdown hangs over Cubans as another major test of dissent looms: a Nov. 15 protest called by actors, artists and dissidents, backed by Cuban exiles but banned by the Cuban state. Activists and observers warn that the incarceration and abuse that followed the July protests could keep prospective demonstrators indoors next month.

Nov. 15 is the day the government plans to reopen the island to international tourism after months of pandemic restrictions. Another eruption of street protests met with similar repression would be a massive public relations setback for the government as it seeks to lure desperately needed tourism dollars.

The crackdown is “clearly an effort to instill fear and make sure this won’t happen again,” said Juan Pappier, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The people who protested because they were tired of not having freedom, of waiting hours in line for bread or milk, they thought they had nothing left to lose. But the government has shown them that they do have something more to lose, that they can end up punished, and live in worse conditions in jail.”

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The Human Rights Watch report was based on interviews with detainees and family members between July and October. Some who did not suffer physical abuse were victimized by arbitrary detentions or opaque criminal proceedings, the group reported. The detainees included ordinary citizens who joined the protests spontaneously, as well as journalists, activists and well-known dissidents, some of whom were arrested before they could attend the demonstrations.

Cuban officials did not respond to a request for comment. They have denied widespread mistreatment of protesters. The Foreign Ministry has said the majority of the cases related to the protests pending in courts are tied to violations of “public order.”

In August, President Miguel Díaz-Canel conceded that “complex situations” can yield “some excess.” But “there is no one missing or tortured, I tell you responsibly,” he said. “All families were told as soon as possible about the whereabouts of their people.”

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Observers close to the government noted that the force used against protesters in Cuba appeared to be markedly less deadly than that deployed in recent demonstrations in Colombia and Chile. At least 29 people died during nationwide protests in Colombia this year that began in April. At least 31 died in Chile in 2019. Many dozens suffered severe eye trauma from rubber bullets and tear-gas canisters.

There was one confirmed fatality during the Cuban protests. Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, a 36-year-old singer, died during a demonstration on the outskirts of Havana. The Cuban Human Rights Observatory, a nongovernmental organization, has said he was shot in the back by a police officer.

“Some of it could have been heavy-handed, but it’s being enormously exaggerated,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat based in Havana. “The police were given strict instructions not to use weapons. We’re not talking about Chile or Colombia, where the police actually kill people.”

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Nevertheless, several detained protesters described abuse in custody.

Orelvys Cabrera, a dissident journalist, said he was forced to strip naked in front of military officials in an interrogation room after being detained for covering the protests.

“I felt violated,” he said.

For hours, he said, he was berated with glorious tales of communist Cuba and its late founder, Fidel Castro. Later, he said, he was put in a small cell with seven others. “I slept on the floor for 33 days. They fed us rice with dirt. Soup with fat. Breakfasts were only a slice of bread.”

The detainees resisted by singing verses of “Patria y Vida,” the Grammy-nominated song that has become the anthem of Cuba’s dissent. But Cabrera, who was released to house arrest after paying a $40 fine, said they also felt a profound sense of disappointment.

“We cried a lot because we had hoped that day that we would finally be free,” Cabrera said.

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Michael Valladares, a construction worker in the western province of Mayabeque, said his wife, María Cristina Garrido, a 39-year-old dissident, was arrested with her sister the morning after the protests. He was not with them at the time, but said witnesses told him the women were struck by police officers during arrest.

Eighteen days later, he said, he managed to see his wife at the Técnico. She described being tossed into a “punishment cell” with feces on the floor after refusing to yell out “Viva Fidel!”

“Every time she refused, she said, a female soldier would hit her so hard she would wet herself,” Valladares said.

Now protesters and authorities are bracing for the Nov. 15 protest, organized by dissidents and artists including the actor and playwright Yunior García. Cuban authorities have rejected the request for a protest permit, claiming the organizers have links to “subversive organizations or agencies financed by the U.S. government.”

In the weeks since the July protests, Cubans have taken to the freest space in Cuba — the Internet — using biting satire and memes to express discontent. But organizers of next month’s demonstration fear the threat of mass detentions could reduce participation.

“Some of us will turn out despite the intimidation campaign against us, but I do not think it will be like July 11,” said Manuel Cuesta Morúa. The 58-year old activist was detained overnight on July 11 and said he is now under regular observation by security agents.

“Those who will come out will be fewer, maybe hundreds, because of fear of repression,” he said. “Do I think they’re going to arrest us again?

“Yes.”

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