By Jeya Lorenz and Madeleine Bair
The church in Santiago, Cuba, dedicated to the country’s patron saint, Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre, is a mecca for locals and tourists alike. But this year, the patron saint day, September 8, was marked differently. As captured in this video, dozens of critics of the Castro regime walked up the stairs of the church, forming the letter L, for “liberation” with their fingers. “We’re here for the political prisoners,” one says to the camera. “We don’t want communism,” says another. According to Javier Larrondo of UNPACU, one of the rally’s organizers, it was one of the largest organized opposition protests Castro’s Cuba has ever seen.
The reason such a protest, and video documentation of it, is so rare is because, as Human Rights Watch stated in April, “Cuba remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent.” In other videos, such as this one, individuals who voice their political dissent are swiftly detained by authorities. Cuban jails, according to activists, are filled with dozens of people who have dared express opinions against Castro’s regime.
Challenges to Filming
As rare as public political dissent is in Cuba, documentation of protests is even rarer. Cuban authorities control the content and distribution of media on the island, earning the country spot 171 out of 179 on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.
The problem is not just political but technological. Many of the videos in this playlist were taken by cell phones, but Cuba has the lowest cell phone penetration rate in Latin America. At the end of 2012, only 11 percent of Cubans had cell phones, and many were the most basic kind, lacking video capability. But this is changing rapidly.
For those who do have a camera to film a protest, it is not easy to share it within or outside of the country. Freedom House describes net freedom in Cuba as “Not Free,” due to restrictions on political content on the web, imprisonment of dissident online activists, and obstacles to access due to weak infrastructure and tight government control.
Behind the Camera
Despite these challenges, more and more Cuban activists are using video to challenge official reports from the country. Their videos show voices of dissent that are not often seen outside of Cuban exile communities. They also document the repression of free speech by Cuban authorities. One of the groups behind Cuban video activism is UNPACU, founded in 2011 by several Cuban activists who had served time for speaking out against the regime as well as supporters outside Cuba. Members of UNPACU use cell phones to film dissident rallies. To share them outside the country, they are assisted by foreign supporters who donate money to use internet cafés and by foreign embassies who allow them to use their internet to put their videos on YouTube.
Larrondo, who spoke to the Human Rights Channel from Spain, explained that activists were able to hold and film the rally seen in the above video because the location was a tourist destination. Police would not want to crack down on the protesters or filmer when there were several tourists around. “That day the circumstances helped us to be able to say peace without getting detained.” However he added, Cuban authorities will crack down on activism “whenever it happens in villages.” We see some examples of that in our video playlist of Cuban activism, such as in this video reportedly taken in Camagüey this March. Shortly after four people hold banners and yell for “Libertad” on a small street, authorities arrive and take them off in a police car.