This week, U.S. diplomats meet with their Cuban counterparts in Havana to hash out details of a normalization of ties between the two countries. Since the December 17 announcement that Cuba and the U.S. would end five decades of hostility, many have wondered what the changes would mean for Cubans, especially in regards to the one aspect brought up most frequently in talks about U.S. policy toward Cuba: human rights.
While restrictions on Cuban media make it difficult to know what the average Cuban thinks of the policy changes underway, a growing network of independent bloggers, news outlets, and activists within the country have been documenting developments and recording on video issues and opinions that the state-controlled media ignores. A playlist of videos from the past two months in Cuba contains testimony from recently released political prisoners, accounts of harassment and beatings by the police, videos of protests, and reports on economic woes. The footage provides a glimpse into human rights issues in the country, and the prospects for change.
Release of Political Prisoners
In early 2015, 38 political prisoners were set free on conditional release by Cuban authorities, completing the liberation of 53 political prisoners that Cuba agreed to as part of its diplomatic negotiation with the United States.
Among those freed was rapper Ángel Yunier “El Critico” Remón, whose criticism of the Castro regime landed him behind bars two years ago(see this video for footage of his political graffiti and public protests). A social media campaign using the hashtag #FreeElCritico put an international spotlight on his imprisonment. Following his recent release, Yunier told the independent Cuban news site, 14ymedio, that he endured physical and psychological torture while in prison.
Also released was Sonia Garro, a member of Damas de Blanco–a controversial group that advocates for the release of political prisoners. In this video interview, Garro, who served three years behind bars, tells the filmer that though she has been released, she does not consider herself free, because the Cuban government can arrest her again.
A majority of the freed prisoners are affiliated with the Union Patriotica de Cuba (UNPACU)–a dissident group that uses video to document its activities in Cuba. In this video, various UNPACU members released from jail declare their intention to continue fighting for “a free Cuba.”
Political Repression on the Rise
The release of so many government critics belies what some human rights advocates say is an increase of political repression in Cuba. According to a local human rights group that tracks political detentions, there were more politically-motivated detentions in 2014 than in the previous five years. The following are just a few of the recent cases reported by activists and independent media:
- At least 34 activists were reportedly arrested on December 10, International Human Rights Day. In this video, apparently filmed the following day, four activists recount what happened, including being arrested at their homes, beaten, and threatened with death for being a mercenary or counterrevolutionary.
- In the wake of December’s historic announcement, several prominent journalists, artists, and activists were detained, including the editor-in-chief of 14ymedio and many others planning to attend a political performance by the artist Tania Bruguera, who was also arrested.
- Danilo Maldonado, an artist known as El Sexto, was detained on Christmas Day. According to 14ymedio, his arrest was intended to impede a performance in which he planned to release two pigs, named Fidel and Raul, in a public square in Havana.
- Last week, HablemosPress reported on the arrest of Miguel Daniel Borroto, the husband of a Damas de Blanco member who is often at their protests with a camera in hand.
- Several videos shared in January by UNPACU describe arrests and harassment of its members in the town of Gibara.
- On January 13, a police officer visited the home of UNPACU’s Havana coordinator to harass him about his activism, reported the organization. Other members of UNPACU were at his home and captured the scene on video.
Other Human Rights Issues
Cuba’s bloggers and human rights activists are reporting not only on the repression of political speech but on other issues the state news won’t cover, including economic concerns of average Cubans.
Cubanet, an independent news site founded by Miami-based exiles, publishes reports by Cuban citizen journalists. The video below, for example, profiles a town that, according to residents interviewed, has lacked water pipes for more than a decade.
Residents describe child illnesses resulting from the lack of potable water, and the high cost of having to buy it themselves.
In this video by UNPACU, a campesino in Buenaventura shows his meager living conditions and complains about government restrictions that prohibit farmers from eating meat of their own animals that would otherwise go to waste.
This video report by Jagua Press explores the changing landscape for LGBT Cubans, through the voice of an activist in Cienfuegos.
Broadcasting Critical Opinions to the World
With increasing international attention on the country, and negotiations between the Cuban and U.S. governments underway, these activists are working to make sure their voices are heard.
One strategy is to target their messages at foreigners visiting Cuba. That’s what a group of activists are seen doing in this video, in which UNPACU members are filmed confronting a tourist bus and shouting things like “Down with the dictatorship of Fidel and Raul.”
Others have used YouTube to express their opinions about the Cuban government and the changing relationship with the U.S. On the day that the change was announced, several opposition leaders recorded a meeting in which they expressed their reaction to the news. A month later, leaders from several of Cuba’s civil society groups participated in a “Forum for Rights and Liberty,” which was also filmed. Many of those same activists met with a U.S. congressional delegation that visited Cuba earlier this week.
In addition, a social media campaign has collected the voices of Cubans from around the world. They are sharing short videos expressing what they demand of a new Cuba, using the hashtag #YoTambienExijo and #UnDiaParaCuba. Hundreds of those videos have been collected into the YouTube playlist below.
Because of the repression of media and free speech in Cuba, limited internet access, and restrictions on human rights investigators and advocates, it is difficult to verify the reports of independent and activist media in Cuba, or to know how reflective the stories and views they portray are of the Cuban population as a whole. What is certain is that a greater number of voices from Cuba are finding ways to document their lives and express their views.
And for resources on citizen video verification and curation, visit the Human Rights Channel’s website.