One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Late last week Guillermo Farinas began another hunger strike, apparently his 24th in 15 years, to demand that the Cuban government prosecute those involved in the beating of dissident, Juan Wilfredo Soto and his subsequent death. (Reports differ as to what extent the alleged beating by police officers brought about Soto’s death, but Farinas and others insist it did. In contrast, Sotos’ doctor and sister told Cuban media that his death was unrelated). Farinas’ announcement came on the heels of news that four individuals accused of distributing anti-government pamphlets in Havana were sentenced to 3-5 years in prison for acts of “defiance” and “public disorder.” The four men were apparently detained in January or throwing pamphlets in the air with the slogans including, “The Castros are assassins” and ” Down with the Castros.”
For those of us outside Cuba, it is often difficult to independently verify details of events on the island. This is particularly problematic when it comes to clashes between the government and anti-government activists. Indeed, after Soto’s death, prominent international human rights organizations including Amnesty International called on the Cuban government to conduct a thorough investigation saying, “There are too many unanswered questions.” Fortunately, in regards to last week’s case, Human Rights Watch was able to obtain a copy of a document sent from the state prosecutor to the Havana Criminal Court which indeed corroborates that the four men were detained for the offense as it has been reported.
If so, and the incident was a classic exercise in the repression of dissent, it seems Havana is of late, of two minds about how it wants to deal with such acts, incidents that seem to be on the rise. In recent months, the Cuban government tended to rely on a policy of “catch and release” in responding to dissident agitation, detaining individuals and imprisoning them for short periods of time. In contrast, the 3-5 year sentences handed down last week signified a notable shift. On this issue, Elizardo Sánchez of the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights told El Nuevo Herald,
“It’s evident that there’s a change, let’s say in the character of the political repression,” Sánchez added. “Suddenly there’s been a shift toward the trials and sentences” more often seen under brother Fidel Castro’s rule.
Cuba is embarking on a period of historic economic change that will inevitably alter its political and social landscape as well. While the prisoner release the government brokered with the Cuban Catholic Church last year was an encouraging indication the regime was interested in taking meaningful, if self-interested, steps on human rights, recent events signal otherwise.
And while Cuba’s dissident bloggers and other well-known activists maintain reasonably strong connections outside Cuba that offer them some degree of immunity from the most brutal forms of government repression, this protection is not absolute, nor does not extend to the island’s lesser-known activists or burgeoning bloggers. Amidst these thoughts, I came across an excellent post at Along The Malecon that touches on many related questions regarding Cuba’s economic transition, and the future of democracy and human rights on the island. If you have thoughts on these or related topics, please share them in the comments.