Cuban artist Hamlet Lavastida, whom Cuba’s state security held prisoner since June, was released this weekend but forced into exile with his partner, writer Katherine Bisquet, another prominent leader of the island artists’ pro-democracy movement.
Another 500-plus Cubans are still under detention in connection with the widespread anti-government protests that shook the Caribbean nation on July 11. Some are facing harsh sentences that could lock them up for several years.
“Cuban State Security imposed exile on both of us as the only option for Hamlet’s release,” Bisquet wrote in a statement published Sunday on Facebook after they were already in Europe, on their way to Poland, where Lavastida has a son. “On several occasions, I heard more than one agent say that it was not convenient for them to have Hamlet imprisoned and that, due to this ‘political rationale’ they decided to release him under the condition that both of us would leave the country.”
Bisquet called the plan “macabre.”
Lavastida, a visual artist whose work touches on state repression and authoritarianism, was detained on June 26 after returning from an artistic residency in Berlin. He was not officially charged but held in the feared state security headquarters in Villa Marista in Havana, where agents at times blamed him for inciting the July 11 demonstrations, Bisquet told the Herald in a previous interview.
Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience along with other artists and dissidents arrested in connection with the demonstrations.
In her Sunday statement, Bisquet said Lavastida was taken directly to the José Martí airport by state security on Saturday afternoon from a state security house where he was moved to on Sept. 20. She was taken to the airport too from her home, where state security agents have confined her since May.
She couldn’t say goodbye to her parents, she said.
“Since the beginning of his unusual detention, and during the 90 days that he was deprived of his liberty because of an investigation without grounds, I, Katherine Bisquet, writer and activist, have been the target of harassment, coercion, illegal deprivation of liberty (house arrest for 65 days), psychological torture, illegal detentions and threats of prosecution by Cuban State Security,” she said.
The Miami Herald confirmed that Lavastida and Bisquet arrived in Poland on Sunday, but they could not be immediately reached for comment. In her Facebook post, Bisquet said the couple did not feel defeated but instead have “many things to build.”
“We will not be anyone’s pawns; we will not be the relics of a power that boasts of the control they have over the lives of so many Cubans,” she wrote. “In the last few months, something has changed. The people have expressed the will to change things. Today those Cubans are saving me and saving themselves.”
July 11 protesters still detained
Children, mothers, students, artists, dissidents, and hundreds of ordinary Cubans were detained during anti-government demonstrations on July 11 and its violent aftermath. Two-and-a-half months later, as many as 533 are still in prison, including 10 who are age 18 or younger, according to a public list compiled by a group of activists led by Cubalex, an organization that provides legal aid to critics of the Cuban government. They have documented 1,079 arrests.
Government prosecutors have publicly acknowledged that 67 people have been sentenced in summary trials. Still, officials have declined to provide further details, including the total number of arrests made in connection with the demonstrations.
The Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Cubalex and other activists have verified that at least 35 people have received sentences ranging from eight months to a year. But some are facing the prospect of languishing in a Cuban prison cell for several years.
According to a prosecutor’s document reviewed by the Herald, Roberto Pérez Fonseca, 38, is facing assault charges for throwing a stone at a police officer and could be sentenced to 12 years during a trial scheduled for Tuesday. The prosecutors say the officer was not injured, so family members believe that’s not why he has been singled out.
Instead, they believe his real offense was helping to tear apart an image of the late Fidel Castro.
Videos published in social media of an anti-government protest on July 11 in San José de las Lajas, a town near Havana where the first demonstrations started, show a group of people trying to destroy what reports say was a poster or picture of the late Cuban leader. When they succeeded, the crowd cheered and chanted “Freedom.”
The quality of the videos posted online is not good enough to say if the image was in fact of Castro, nor clearly distinguish the faces of those involved, many of whom were using face masks. It was, nonetheless, a viral moment that made international headlines and could send Pérez Fonseca, a father of two children and a player of the Basque game of pelota, to prison for many years.
“He has been falsely accused; my brother was not throwing stones. The videos of what happened that day in San José showed him demonstrating peacefully,” his brother, Alberto Ortega Fonseca, who lives in Vancouver, Canada, told the Herald.
He said the family presented witnesses who testified his brother did not throw stones at the police, but the testimonies were erased from his file.
“At the end, it doesn’t matter whether he threw the stone or not,” Ortega said. “He is not accused of destroying the picture [of Castro] because they can’t have political trials because of public opinion. But his problem is that he is on that viral video, and those involved will be condemned anyway, people in San José tell me.”
Just like Lavastida and many other July 11 detainees, including artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and dissident Félix Navarro, Pérez Fonseca contracted COVID-19 in prison, and his family was not notified until much later.
An arbitrary process
In a July press conference with foreign correspondents, the president of Cuba’s Supreme Court, Rubén Remigio Ferro, said protesting is not a crime in Cuba.
“Far from constituting a crime, demonstrations are a constitutional right of the people. Freedoms of the press, of opinion, of belief, even of political or ideological affiliation do not constitute a crime,” he said.
But the picture coming out of the legal documents reviewed by Cubalex and the information provided by the families of the detainees depicts a process that seems arbitrary in several ways.
Cubalex’s director, Cuban lawyer Laritza Diversent, says several detainees have been held relying solely on the testimonies of police officers. But under Cuba’s law, authorities still need to investigate and provide evidence.
“In many cases, they don’t have a justification for holding them in prison,” she said. “Another common problem is that they are not giving defense lawyers access to their client files, so they don’t know what the charges are.”
The Cuban Conference of Religious Catholics, which opened a helpline for the families of the detainees, said it has noticed authorities have denied most petitions for a “change of measure” — such as immediate release — without considering the evidence presented.
In a statement, the conference also said that lawyers have not been able to see or interview their clients in multiple cases and that those arrested have “limited communication” with their families. In general, they said the investigations proceed slowly, with “scarce evidence of the alleged crimes.”
While most people arrested took part in largely peaceful demonstrations, charges and sentences have not been uniform. Government prosecutors have used at least 17 different charges against the protesters. Most people have been accused of “public disorder,” “defamation,” and “illicit manifestations,” all charges aimed at curtailing freedom of expression on the island. Many also face charges related to allegedly resisting arrest, such as “contempt of the authorities,” “resisting,” “disobedience,” or “assault.” But authorities are also using the breach of COVID-related measures to prosecute at least 70 protesters under charges of “propagation of an epidemic.”
Information provided by government prosecutors and the police to the families of the detainees and gathered by activists call into question the official version that stresses that the protests were primarily violent.
Out of 1,000-plus arrests, Cubalex has documented 12 people accused of robbery and one of theft. Sixty are charged with causing “damages.” A few others face much more severe accusations of “crimes against state security,” which can land them in prison for 20 years.
Some of the accusations described in legal documents reviewed by Cubalex and the Herald suggest government attorneys, many from the military, and police investigators overseeing the cases have been improvising as they try to come up with offenses allegedly committed.
Andy Duque Quindelán, 25, was detained in Sagua la Grande, a town in Villa Clara province, in the afternoon of July 11. According to the prosecutor, he was arrested because of his association with “a counterrevolutionary group named Patria y Vida” to incite the commission of crimes and the use of social media “to slander and offend the president.” Patria y Vida is not the name of a group but a song that became an anti-government anthem.
Duque was formally charged with “association to commit a crime,” “incitement to commit a crime,” “contempt of the authorities” and “propagation of an epidemic.” He was released after posting bond.
Maikel Puig Bergolla, 41, a father of two who works in road maintenance in Guines, a town near Havana, hasn’t been that lucky. He is still in prison under investigation for accusations that keep changing, his wife, Shayli Nuñez Perez, told the Herald. Nuñez has exhausted official channels and visited several government agencies, including attorney’s offices in Mayabeque and Havana to tell them just one thing: that her husband did not even take part in the demonstrations.
“Not going through the official channels to argue his case is to give in to their lies,” she said in a phone interview. Nuñez claims her husband was, like her, watching the demonstrators passing by their house, and they were shocked when the police came to arrest him the following day, on July 12. Authorities didn’t tell her where her husband was for a month, she said.
In the interview and in a habeas corpus petition shared with the Herald, she recounted how authorities kept changing the accusations against her husband. He was first accused of ransacking a government store, but military prosecutors dropped the charges after lack of evidence. Then, citing testimony of a police officer, government attorneys claimed he was a protest leader who was taken into a police station on July 11. But Nuñez challenged that too because he was detained at home the following day. Then he was linked to another young man accused of assaulting a police car. Nuñez claims her husband didn’t know him and that this person has already been released because he was not in Guines at the time of the protests. Finally, five police agents testified that her husband threw stones at a police car but have failed to present any evidence of the accusation, including video from the police patrol.
“There is no video; there are no other witnesses,” Perez said. Because of the pandemic, she resigned from her job at the local hospital out of fear of infecting their nine-year-old son, who suffers from chronic high blood pressure. Now, she has been left alone to care for him and his sister.
“This is too hard; it’s inhumane,” she said. “We cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel.”