On July 11, 2021, Cuba witnessed what was the most significant wave of protests in decades, a trend that has become common to large parts of Latin America. Across the island, thousands of people took to the streets to demand better living conditions under the worst economic crisis the country had experienced since the fall of the Soviet Union, with ongoing medicine and food shortages that have been exacerbated by U.S. sanctions, acute inflation, and dissatisfaction with the government.
The Cuban government responded to the largely peaceful protests with repression and censorship. It is estimated that over 1,500 people were detained and deprived of their liberty following J11. Many of them remain in preventive detention awaiting trial. There has been a significant lack of transparency and official reporting by the Cuban government about the situation of those detained, with the authorities only releasing official statements in January and in June. The office of Cuba’s Attorney General reported that there were 790 people indicted of which 488 have been sentenced, primarily for sedition, acts of vandalism, violent robbery and disturbances of public order. Of those who have been sentenced, 16 are minors between 16 and 18 years old. In total, 55 minors were accused of a crime, with 28 held in pretrial detention and only 18 having their sentence modified or reduced.
Cuban and international NGOs, journalists, and human rights groups have repeatedly tried to gain access to the trials and sentence reduction documents with little to no success. There have also been clear violations of the rights to due process of the detainees, which are guaranteed under the Cuban Constitution. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), violations of minimal due process guarantees include “the restriction of access to criminal records or copies of sentences and the absence of appropriate technical defense and contact with legal representatives.” The Commission also received several complaints about intimidation tactics towards family and friends of those accused as well as journalists and activists that were actively engaged in the protests and their aftermath.
Artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and Maikel Castillo Pérez, some of the most well-known activists deprived of their liberty, were recently sentenced to 5 and 9 years of imprisonment, respectively, for desacato, defamation of government institutions and symbols, and public disorder, among other charges. Desacato, understood to mean holding contempt of authorities, uses defamation as a tool to repress criticism of the government, curtailing citizens freedom of expression, in violation of international standards. Otero Alcantara was also sentenced for actions that “disrespected the Cuban flag.”
Following the protests in July 2021, the space for civil society and public discourse has continued to shrink. The Cuban government actively denounced and prohibited any form of public dissent in the subsequent protests scheduled for November 15 (15N), and many activists and civil society actors reported intimidation by security forces leading up to and immediately following 15N. In addition, people in Cuba have shared multiple accounts of increased surveillance of activists, many of whom continue to carry out their work at lower levels for fear of retaliation.
The newly adopted penal code, while being a more modern code in certain aspects, including classifying gender and domestic violence, increasing sanctions to address all forms of discrimination and guaranteeing animal welfare, also paints a bleak panorama for activists and illustrates the government’s stronghold on dissent.
On the other side of the Florida straits, the Biden administration continues to maintain in place the majority of the Trump-era sanctions that have exacerbated Cuba’s economic woes and its ability to effectively respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and provide healthcare to the population. On May 15, the administration announced a welcome series of measures that would partially reverse some of these policies towards Cuba, including lifting some restrictions on remittances, educational group people-to-people travel, and restaffing the U.S. Embassy in Havana. However, many steps still have to be taken for these measures to be fully implemented.
While some restrictions on remittances have been removed, there are still no formal ways available to send them. As experts discussed with WOLA, a possible solution could be loosening regulations on banking and allowing U.S. banks to establish correspondent accounts with Cuban banks in the civilian sector, circumventing service providers, facilitating remittance flow and also supporting the Cuban private sector.
Likewise, although the reinstatement of group people-to-people educational travel as well as certain travel related to professional meetings and professional research will provide desperately needed support for the private Cuban businesses working in the hospitality sector, which have been devastated by the collapse of tourism during the pandemic, there are other ways to make it more effective. For example, the administration could fully restore the general license for professional meetings to also include public performances, clinics, workshops, competitions and exhibitions, and abolish the “Cuba Prohibited Accommodations” list of hotels in Cuba at which U.S. persons are prohibited from staying.
While the Cuban government’s response to the protests and additional actions undertaken in the past year to limit freedom of expression combined with U.S. domestic midterm elections considerations have reduced the spaces for the Biden administration, diplomacy and engagement with Cuba would allow both countries to move forward on many pressing issues, including discussing respect for human rights.
The April 2022 resumption of the migration talks between the U.S. and Cuba was an important first step towards increased engagement. Before President Trump halted them in the second half of his presidency, the U.S. and Cuba participated in a wide range of dialogues on more than a dozen issues related to the 22 bilateral agreements signed between 2015 and January 2017.
The Biden administration should resume those dialogues given the importance of cooperation on areas such as the environment, law enforcement, maritime issues, oil spill preparedness, and others of mutual interest. To improve the atmosphere for bilateral dialogue, the administration should remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, since it doesn’t meet the statutory definition and Cuban behavior has not changed materially since the intelligence review ordered by President Obama in 2015 concluded that Cuba no longer belonged on that list.
Ahead of the one-year mark since July 11, many challenges remain. Disproportionate and unfair sentences have been issued to protesters, amid concerns of due process violations and lack of transparency by the Cuban government that should be addressed. The repression of dissent and the continuing violation of the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly should stop. Likewise, while the Cuban government has implemented some welcomed economic reform measures, with limited tangible results due to the current precarious state of the Cuban economy, it has yet to address its citizens’ call for more civil liberties.
An earlier version of this article mistakenly put the number of 488 people sentenced at 381. It also noted that there had been 790 detentions instead of 790 indictments—the official number of detentions has not been reported by the Attorney General’s office. It has since been corrected and a direct link to civil society reporting has also been included.
WOLA’s mission is to advocate for human rights and social justice in the Americas. We continue to strive to provide clear and truthful information that supports and uplifts human rights across the region, including Cuba.