Frankfurt am Main/Havana, March 18, 2021 – Popular vacation destination with disastrous human rights record: “In Cuba, persecution continues and it is even getting worse. At the moment, you see military everywhere on the streets, which is supposed to prevent protests from happening due to the severe lack of food,” explains Berta Soler, spokeswoman for the “Ladies in White”, in a video message at the beginning of the Cuba Symposium of the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR) on March 18, 2021.
The occasion for the symposium was, on the one hand, the Day of Action for the Freedom of Political Prisoners and, on the other hand, the anniversary of the so-called Cuban Black Spring, when 75 civil rights activists were arrested in March 2003 and subsequently sentenced to long prison terms. Under the motto “Patria y Vida – Cuba between Rigidity and the Courage to Live,” Cuba experts, witnesses and victims of the Cuban regime discussed the current human rights situation as well as Europe’s role in promoting democracy and economic development.
Surveillance and pressure to persecute
“Cuba is a popular vacation destination. Sun and beach cannot hide the fact that the country is oppressed by a communist, money-grubbing power elite,” said Dieter Dombrowski, president of the Union of Victims’ Associations of Communist Tyranny (UOKG).
As the ISHR, which has a section in Cuba, reports, there are currently 138 known political prisoners on the Caribbean island. Again and again, there are arbitrary arrests, mistreatment and trumped-up charges against civil rights activists. As Berta Soler explains, they are imprisoned together with common criminals and run the risk of contracting the Corona virus in prison. In addition, she says, the food situation there is extremely poor, and because of the pandemic, relatives are not allowed to visit the inmates.
“The Ladies in White continue to suffer severe repression and surveillance by the regime, although we have paused our activities for the freedom of Cuba and political prisoners due to the Corona pandemic,” Soler said.
Red Cross denied access to Cuban prisons
As Martin Lessenthin, spokesman of the board of the ISHR, explains, the situation for Cuban citizens has continued to deteriorate during the pandemic. While the regime advertises vaccination tours for vacationers and sends medical brigades abroad, Cubans have no access to an efficient health care system, he said. Medical equipment and hygienic conditions in Cuban hospitals are inadequate. Certain medicines are also in short supply. The ISHR strongly criticizes the fact that the International Committee of the Red Cross has not had access to Cuban prisons for decades.
Placebos instead of medication – Catastrophic health care in Cuba
Omara Ruiz Urquiola, an art historian and professor, also addressed the issue of poor health care in her video message. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, she began treatment in the hospital without ever being examined. Time and again, she was given placebos instead of effective medications.
“In 2016, when I was supposed to go six months without any medication at all, which would have meant death for me, my brother went on a hunger strike and achieved the continuation of treatment,” Omara Ruiz Urquiola said.
After 15 years working as a professor at the University of Havana, she was dismissed in 2019 because of her political and social commitment. Her brother, biologist Dr. Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, was previously terminated for publicly advocating for her right to health care and for environmental protection.
Protests after inflation
Dr. René de Jesús Gómez Manzano, president of ISHR Cuba, addressed the current political and economic situation. Under the pretext of implementing the so-called Arrangement Process – which aims to eliminate one of Cuba’s two currencies – the government has increased salaries and pensions as well as prices, he said. The resulting inflation, he said, has significantly reduced Cubans’ real incomes and triggered a wave of protests to which the regime has responded with repression.
“In today’s dire economic situation, all of the regime’s hopes are tied to the success of the Cuban vaccine against COVID-19,”
Dr. Gómez Manzano said, noting that Cuba has experienced a sharp increase in Coronavirus cases within the past few weeks. So far, however, no Cubans have received the vaccine, he said.
“The dictatorship rejects gays and humiliates us”
“We gays have no representation, no voice in the Cuban government. We are completely defenseless and the cruel dictatorship rejects us and humiliates us. We are eagerly waiting for the day when human rights, and especially LGBT rights, are respected in Cuba,”
explains 18-year-old Adrian Rubio, a member of Cuba’s LGBT community who advocates for human rights. Cuban writer and journalist Amir Valle described the current situation in Cuba as “more critical than in Fidel Castro’s time” and in this context emphasizes the increased repression against artists and intellectuals. For this reason, he takes a critical view of the dialogue between the EU, the UN and the new U.S. administration with Cuba.
Artists rebel against regime
The current situation of artists was also taken up in his video message by the Rev. Manuel Alberto Morejón Soler, pastor of the Christian Alliance Church in Cuba. and addressed the sentences handed down in the wake of the so-called Black Spring, when 75 civil rights activists were arrested on March 18, 2003, and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 12 to 28 years.
“Today, a group of young artists has spontaneously risen up and is deeply disturbing the dictatorship, the San Isidro Movement (El Movimiento de San Isidro). These young people have come together after the arbitrary arrest of rapper Denis Solis to demand his release,” said Father Soler.
After repression, they even went on a hunger strike and demonstrated for their rights in front of the Ministry of Culture. After authorities violently cracked down on the group, the musicians created the hymn ‘Patria y Vida’ (“Home and Life”). Cuban journalist Iliana Hernandez is part of the San Isidro movement:
“‘Patria y Vida’ is a song that has brought a lot of hope to the Cuban people, it has become the freedom anthem of the Cuban people. We use it to demonstrate for change and emphasize that the Cuban people want homeland and life (patria y vida) and not homeland or death (patria o muerte).”
The German-Cuban writer Amir Valle stressed that the situation is more critical than in Fidel Castro’s time, contrary to the general idea that Cuba is more open today. He criticizes the position of dialogue with the Cuban government of the European Union, the UN and the new administration of the United States, since the repression is currently much higher. In this regard, Valle says that there are many other examples of systematic repression besides the well-known MSI and 27N movements. Valle describes some of these examples in the areas of music, journalism, and literature; he points to the strong campaign that the regime is waging in all its media against opposition artists and intellectuals, and the pressure it is currently exerting against Cuban exiles who criticize the government on the Internet.
María del Carmen Ares-Marrero, Director
The Havana-born author, director and playwright grew up in the bosom of a “revolutionary” communist family, but is now campaigning for the release of political prisoners in Cuba. She lamented the double standards of the Cuban elite and enthusiastically reported on a demonstration held in Berlin on December 5 for the release of political prisoners. “Se acabo”, it’s over, reports Ares Marrero, Cubans are no longer afraid of the repressive system.
Mario Röllig, LSU Berlin
Mario Röllig reported on his own experiences as a tourist in Cuba and how brutally the police there treat homosexuals. During this trip, Röllig recalled the collapse of the GDR.
“The discontent of young people is very high, he said, and it is very clear that only a small spark is missing for them to take to the streets.”
Martin Lessenthin emphasized at the end of the event: “Cuba could be economically self-sufficient. But the supply of the population with food and also the medical care are catastrophic. The inability of the Communist Party, which has ruled alone for more than 5 decades, has led to Cubans living in poverty and without perspective. Many dream of a life of freedom far from the island. Courageous Cubans make their criticism public, as musicians, writers, civil rights activists or bloggers. The criticism of these people is stifled with brutal harshness.