Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Cuba smackdown of rights testifier to U.S. Senate backfires

by Zachariah Bryan June 30th, 2012

Earlier this month in Cuba, peaceful political dissident Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, or “Antunez,” was jailed, beaten and pepper sprayed. This took place just three days after he testified to a U.S. Senate subcommittee about the Cuban government’s repression of citizens’ free speech rights. Though for thousands of Cuban citizens such harassment has long been common, acts of repression in Cuba burgeoned last year, according to the Cuba section of a recent global human rights report from the U.S. Department of State. In 2011, The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and Reconciliation counted a total of 4,123 short-term detentions, a 99 percent increase over 2010, according to the State Department report. This year’s pace is even higher, with documented political arrests in Cuba at more than 2,400 since January; 1,158 in March alone, according to testimony of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) at the subcommittee hearing earlier this month.

Activist hid behind bushes on walk to teleconferencing studio
The U.S. Senate hearing, titled “The Path to Freedom: Countering Repression and Strengthening Civil Society in Cuba,” was convened by the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, and Global Narcotics, of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The hearing was headed by subcommittee chairman Menendez, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, and featured three Cuban peace activists. One, former Cuban political prisoner Normando Hernandez Gonzalez, was physically present, while the other two, including Antunez, testified via video feed from Havana, Cuba. Antunez told committee members that he walked miles to his location, hiding behind bushes to avoid getting caught by police.

Spoke to U.S. Senators after release from jail
Four days after after Antunez was released by his Cuban captors, he spoke with Menendez and Rubio on the phone about his time in jail. A video of Menendez and Rubio recalling the conversation was released after the call.

“The first thing out of their mouth when (Antunez) came into the jail was, ‘We heard what you said last week before the U.S. Senate Committee,’” Rubio said. “(Antunez) has no doubt whatsoever that the beatings and the treatment that he received was directly linked to the fact that he appeared last week via Satellite.”

Political reformists in the cross-hairs
Freedom of speech is heavily censored in Cuba. The constitution protects freedom of speech only as it “conforms to the aims of socialist society,” according to the State Department report. Punishments for voicing opposition to the government can range from three months to fifteen years of imprisonment, the report said. More often, though, officers will arrest dissidents for a shorter period of time, from hours to days, as with Antunez.

Police state conditions evident, says State Department
Police officers have relatively free reign in Cuba, able to question and detain citizens without prior reason and ignore procedures that would otherwise give detainees basic rights, the report said. The report note continued cases of guards beating, harassing and unfairly isolating prisoners. Prisoners also continue to lack adequate water, sanitation, space, light, ventilation, temperature control, and medical care. Potable water is frequently unavailable and many rely on family for food and basic supplies.

Tight controls on Internet
The Cuban government has strict control of the Internet, according to the U.S. State Department report. The government monitors email, chat rooms and browsing. And while the government reports 15.9 percent of citizens had access to internet last year, the access was highly restricted in most cases to only email or very limited browsing.

Public Data Ferret’s Global Human Rights archive

There was unanimous support at the U.S. Senate hearing for uncensored access to the Internet, which would grant access to diverse opinions and outside press. “I believe with all my heart that if the people of Cuba had access to the Internet and could communicate with one another … and get news from the outside world … I do not believe the Castro regime could survive that, at all,” Rubio said at the hearing. But in addition to restricting Net access, the Cuban government has hired up to 1,000 bloggers to discredit any opposing voice, according to the report. One example, the State-run blog Cubadebate, has the slogan “Against Terrorism in the Media,” and consistently publishes editorials damning dissenting voices, both from inside Cuba and out.

Recently, a Cubadebate editorial damned the 3-day Click Festival, a social media gathering of bloggers and tweeters in Cuba, reports the Associated Press. The event was organized by Antunez, who is part of Spain Blog Event, and other bloggers who have been targeted by the Cuban government in the past.

Via the AP, the editorial, which is available only in Spanish, reads:

“In Havana they are cooking up a subversive monster, supposedly not politicized, ‘promoting’ the use of information and communications technologies … The intention of the Click Festival is clear. To advance the strategy of constructing networks ahead of an aggression … and strengthen the idea of the counterrevolution linked to the United States as a promoter of freedom on the Internet.”

Spreading call for human rights in Cuba via DVDs
In addition to wider Internet access, Antunez said disseminating burnable DVDs with speeches could be a powerful tool. In areas where before people had “no thirst for change,” communication through DVDs has helped spur action, he said. At the hearing, Menendez asked Gonzalez what actions cross the “red line,” beyond which the Cuban government will take retributory action

“Any attempt to gain any kind of public space, any kind of activity by the dissidents or the opposition to try to get some kind of representation in society,” Gonzalez answered. “Any kind of attempt to do this is what…constitutes as crossing the red line.” Perez said outside help from the free world will be vital as Cuban citizens push for their rights. Menendez noted America’s unwillingness involve itself with Cuba in the past and reaffirmed his commitment to taking action. “Why are we so willing to throw up our hands and say it’s time to forget?” he said. “It is not time to forget.”


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