Warning of Possible Banishment of Cuba’s Political Prisoners

Scene from Havana, July 11, 2021. Photo: El Toque

By El Toque

HAVANA TIMES – The Cuban Human Rights Observatory, the legal information center Cubalex, and the Justicia 11J working group on political detentions, issued a joint statement of alert on Monday, February 20, regarding the possible release and banishment of the Cuban political prisoners.

The organizations’ concerns arose in the wake of the Ortega regime’s recent liberation of 222 political prisoners, and their banishment to the United States. In addition, they pointed out another set of factors indicating that the Nicaraguan solution might be seen as an advantageous way out for the Cuban government as well. In past years, the Cuban authorities have utilized their political prisoners as a bargaining chip in their negotiations.

The massive protests in Cuba on July 11-12, 2021 (and those that occurred later) have left “a total of 768 demonstrators arrested – a fivefold increase in the number of political prisoners (152), who were in jail at the beginning of July 2021,” stated the declaration published by the three organizations.

The issue of freeing the prisoners was on the table during the latest conversations of the Havana government with the United States, and also during other sustained talks with representatives of the European Union and the Catholic Church.

A sign of hope for those urging liberation?

The release and deportation to the United States of the 222 Nicaraguan political prisoners could be a signal for the Cubans fighting for the release of the political prisoners on the island.

On January 18, 2023, Oscar Silvera, Cuba’s Justice Minister, met with ambassadors from the EU to talk about the convictions and harsh sentences meted out to the July 11 demonstrators. The European counterparts expressed to the Cuban functionary the need for a pardon, according to information confirmed by the Spanish news agency EFE. For his part, Silvera declared that no legal possibility existed for an amnesty to occur.

Another of the indicators that seem to point towards a panorama similar to the Nicaraguan one was the visit of Cardenal Beniamino Stella to Havana, as an envoy from Pope Francis.

Official versions maintain that Stella arrived in Cuba with the mission of celebrating the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba, on January 21-25, 1998. However, while there, the Cardinal did pronounce in favor of freeing the July 11 political prisoners.

“The Pope greatly desires a positive response (…) It’s important that the young people who at one moment manifested their thinking the way we know of, can return to their homes,” Stella declared to the press.

The punishment of banishment

The threats of banishment and forced expatriation are a systematic practice of totalitarian regimes like the one in Cuba. They use it to “obtain advantages in political, diplomatic, and economic negotiations, and as a way of exercising social control and demobilizing civil society,” the organizations’ statement points out.

Two recent events in Cuban history confirm the practice: the 2010 release into exile of a large part of those detained during the 2003 crackdown on dissidents known as Cuba’s “Black Spring”. There was also the 2015 release of 53 political prisoners, who were then forced to go into exile to avoid the repression of the political police. Both events came out of negotiations: the first to modify the common position on Cuba taken by the European Union; and the second to reestablish relations between Havana and the United States.

The organizations that signed the statement are not in agreement with this tactic. “The forced exit from the country as a condition for the release of political prisoners is a violation of the right to free circulation, as established in the first section of Article 12 of the International Pact for Civil and Political Rights.”

Any negotiation process with such an aim should have “humanitarian value,” the statement insists, although it also emphasizes the need for the immediate release from incarceration of those deprived of their freedom because they exercised their right to express themselves, meet or associate. Those currently imprisoned should be the ones to decide whether or not to abandon Cuba, without being pressured by Cuba’s State Security.

The statement stresses the idea that the prisoners and their families should form part of the negotiation process, because “the victims must be at the center of any negotiation.” The document adds: “Certain minimum guarantees are also essential for those who freely and voluntarily decide to leave the country, such as a way to facilitate the relocation process, to legalize their immigration status, and access rehabilitation services.”

Cubalex, Justicia 11J and the Human Rights Observatory urge the international community and organizations that defend human rights to question any release and deportation process that doesn’t place the victims in the center, and that fails to comply with the guarantees for the full insertion of the prisoners in the destination countries.

In addition, they refuse to view forced expatriation as a step towards progress, as US State Department spokesperson Ned Pierce and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken have framed the Nicaraguan release. Blinken said that the liberation of the Nicaraguans “represents a constructive step” on the part of Managua, and “opens the possibility for a dialogue between the United States and Nicaragua.”

Finally, the organizations signing the statement warn that repression and violations of fundamental freedoms in Cuba won’t end “until a lawful democratic state is in effect in Cuba, with full respect for human rights.”

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