Protesters detained in Cuba could face up to 30 years in prison as they face the island’s largest and most punitive mass trials since the early years of the revolution.
Prosecutors this week tried more than 60 citizens charged with crimes, including sedition, for participating in protests against the country’s economic crisis over the summer, said human rights activists and those close to the people. inmates.
The accused include at least five minors barely 16 years old. They are among the more than 620 inmates who have been or are expected to be tried for joining the biggest explosion of popular discontent against the Communist government since it came to power in 1959.
The gravity of the charges is part of a concerted government effort to deter further public expressions of discontent, activists said. The crackdown also dashed lingering hopes for gradual liberalization under President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who replaced Fidel Castro’s brother Raúl in 2018 to become the first Cuban leader outside the Castro family since 1959.
“What reigns here is an empire of fear,” said Daniel Triana, a Cuban actor and activist who was briefly detained after the protests. “The repression here does not kill directly, but forces you to choose between prison and exile.
For six decades, Cuba lived under a punitive US trade embargo. The Cuban government has long blamed the nation’s economic collapse solely on Washington, deflecting attention from the effects of Havana’s mismanagement and strict limits on private enterprise.
Cuba exploded into an unexpected protest on July 11, when thousands of people, many from the country’s poorest neighborhoods, marched through towns and villages to denounce soaring inflation, power outages and worsening food and medicine shortages.
Scenes of mass discontent – shared widely on social media – shattered the idea promoted by Cuban leaders that popular support for the ruling Communist Party persisted, despite economic hardship.
After initially being taken by surprise, the government responded with the biggest crackdown in decades, sending military units to crush the protests. More than 1,300 protesters were arrested, according to human rights organization Cubalex and Justice J11, an umbrella organization of Cuban civil society groups monitoring the consequences of the summer unrest.
The Cuban government did not respond to requests for comment sent by the foreign media office.
The scale of the government’s reaction shocked longtime opposition figures and Cuban observers.
Cuban leaders have always reacted swiftly to any public discontent, imprisoning protesters and harassing dissidents. But previous repressions tended to focus on relatively small groups of political activists.
In contrast, the mass trials that began in December target, for the first time in decades, people who had largely no connection to politics before leaving their homes to join the crowds calling for change, historians and activists have said.
“This is something completely new,” said Martha Beatriz Roque, a prominent Cuban dissident who was convicted of sedition in 2003, along with 74 other activists, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Their sentences were eventually commuted and most were allowed to go into exile.
“There isn’t a drop of compassion left, and that’s what makes the difference” with the past, she said by phone from her home in Havana.
Yosvany García, a 33-year-old welder, had never taken part in protests or encountered any problems with the law, said his wife, Mailin Rodríguez. On July 11, he returned for lunch, as usual, from his workshop in the provincial capital of Holguín.
But on his way back to work, he encountered a crowd calling for political change, Ms. Rodríguez said. Driven by a wave of outrage at the unbearable cost of living, García joined the march, she said.
He was beaten up by police who interrupted the rally later that day, but returned to his wife’s house that night. Four days later, he was cornered by police near his home and taken to jail.
On Wednesday, García was charged with sedition along with 20 other protesters, including five teenagers aged 17 and 16, the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Cuba. All face sentences of at least five years in prison; Mr García faces a 30-year sentence.
Rowland Castillo was 17 in July, when he was arrested for joining the protest in a working-class suburb of the capital, Havana. Provincial champion in wrestling, one of Cuba’s most popular sports, Mr. Castillo attended a state sports academy and had never participated in political activities, according to his mother, Yudinela Castro.
She said she didn’t realize he joined the protest until police came to arrest him several days later. Prosecutors are seeking a 23-year sentence against him for sedition.
Ms Castro said that after her son’s arrest she was fired from the public food market where she worked. She now lives on donations from neighbors and supporters at an abandoned community first aid clinic with her 2-year-old grandson – Mr Castillo’s son – as she tries to recover from cancer.
“Thanks to him, I realized the evil that is happening in this country,” she said, referring to her imprisoned son. “He didn’t do anything except go out and ask for freedom.”
Initially, the accession of Mr. Díaz-Canel, 61, to the presidency in 2018 gave hope for a gradual change in certain circles.
He was not part of the old guard that came to power with the Castros. In power, he attempted to rationalize Cuba’s convoluted monetary system and introduced reforms to develop the private sector in a bid to alleviate a crippling economic crisis caused by the pandemic, the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and the shrinking aid from the island’s socialist ally, Venezuela.
But Mr. Díaz-Canel, born after the revolution, could not mention the anti-imperialist struggles of the Castro brothers to cover ever lower standards of living. When the protests erupted, he reacted forcefully.
“They have no intention of changing,” said Salomé García, activist for Justice J11, the rights group, “to allow Cuban society to participate in determining its destiny.”