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Latin America

Cuban human rights activists say situation is deteriorating on the island

Detentions are up so far this year; dissidents are currently on a hunger strike
27 Jul 2016 – 6:16 PM EDT

Just over a year after Cuba and the United States restored diplomatic ties, the human rights situation on the communist island has worsened, according to researchers and activists.

A hundred dissidents are currently behind bars in Cuba, according to José Daniel Ferrer, ex-political prisoner and leader of the opposition group Unión Patriótica de Cuba (UNPACU), who left Cuba for the first time in May and is currently in Miami. During a press conference in Miami on Wednesday, Ferrer said that peaceful activists continue to face “break-ins, robberies and repression” on the island.

Citing issues such as renewed pressure on cuentapropistas, the island’s small business owners, Ferrer said people are “losing hope” in the possibility of change on the island.

“When people in the exterior, be it politicians or the media, say that things are changing in Cuba they’re doing the regime a huge favor,” Ferrer said, “because there is nothing changing in Cuba.”

On December 17, 2014, Cuba and the United States agreed to open talks to restore diplomatic relations, ending decades of hostility following Cuba's 1959 revolution. The Obama administration has taken a series of steps to relax restrictions on commerce with Cuba, as well as travel to the island. But Cuba’s leadership complains the U.S. trade embargo has not been lifted and appears reluctant to reciprocate by opening the island’s economy to U.S. companies, or softening the harsh treatment of political dissidents.

Though it’s difficult to measure the state of human rights on the island, a report released earlier this month by the Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation suggests the situation has worsened.

According to the commission, short-term political detentions – some for as little as two or three hours – are up from a monthly average of 718 last year to a monthly average of 1,095 during the first six months of this year.

During the first half of the year, there have been a total of 6,573 short-term detentions in Cuba, according to the commission. Coinciding with President Barack Obama’s visit to the island, March was the month with the most detentions, at 1,416.

There were a total of 8,616 documented short-term political detentions last year, 6,424 in 2013, and 2,074 in 2010, according to the commission.

In addition to the rise in short-term detentions, the number of dissidents who have been sentenced to longer terms in prison or labor camps over the past year has risen from about 70 to more than 100, the commission says, at least 20 of which are from UNPACU.

Ferrer, who was one of 75 political prisoners jailed in the 2003 crackdown known as the “Black Spring,” said recent political pronouncements signal the government has not changed.

On Tuesday, the party's No. 2 official Jose Ramon Machado Ventura gave a speech for “National Rebellion Day” in Sancti Spiritus, admitting the country is facing “complex circumstances.”

After years of economic growth, Cuba is plunging back into economic turmoil, largely due to the worsening situation in oil-rich ally Venezuela. Cuba’s economy grew by just 1 percent in the first half of the year, compared to 4 percent last year.

In recent weeks, the Cuban government has warned of possible power rationing and other shortages. Machado suggested Tuesday that Cubans may soon have to tighten their belts.

"They keep asking sacrifices of people that are tired and don’t believe in them anymore,” Ferrer says. "You’re saying to young people seeking change that nothing’s going to happen, that the same Stalinist politicians are going to stay.”

The internet, too, remains largely closed. “People say there is internet in Cuba,” Ferrer said. “Well, yes, but in reality there’s terrible access, it’s hard to find and really expensive. It’s there just for people to defend the government.”

Ferrer said there hasn’t been enough condemnation from the United States, Europe or Latin America about the situation in Cuba.

On July 13, UNPACU youth leader Carlos Amel Oliva Torres declared he would go on a hunger strike in “peaceful response” to a series of repressive incidents. In a YouTube message, Oliva said the homes of some 30 fellow dissidents had been ransacked and robbed in recent months. Oliva was assaulted in an UNPACU office in Havana in May.

Since Oliva’s announcement, 20 dissidents have joined the hunger strike. Among them is well-known dissident Guillermo “Coco” Fariñas, who’s health is precarious due to at least 25 hunger strikes staged in the past.

On Wednesday, 200 activists are holding a 12-hour fast as a show of solidarity, including Ferrer from Miami.

During Wednesday’s press conference, which was held at the Cuban American National Foundation, Oliva and Fariñas joined by telephone.

Oliva said that his body is deteriorating but that he’s as firm "as the first day." Fariñas said that if people don’t strike, the government will continue with its human rights abuses.

A hunger strike “becomes the last resort to repression and dictatorship,” Ferrer said.

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