they share intelligence on how to deal with their opponents
Solitary confinement, isolation, and little contact with families are some of the similarities in the way political prisoners are treated in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela
HAVANA TIMES – Carlos Quesada, the executive director and founder of Race and Equality, pointed out that Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela are sharing intelligence on how to deal with opposition members and have given some guidelines for the concept of “political prisoner”, in the lead up to a meeting about political prisoners in these three countries that will be held as part of the Summit of the Americas.
Quesada also mentioned the importance of documenting human rights violations and the work that the recently designated United Nation’s investigation mechanism for Nicaragua will carry out.
Is the situation of political prisoners in Cuba and Venezuela the same as Nicaragua’s? What similarities do they share?
They are very similar, unfortunately. It’s important to say that the Nicaraguan, Cuban and Venezuelan regimes are sharing intelligence and even information about how to treat dissidents or the opposition, and forms of punishment, whether this is in pretrial detention or already in prison, and this has a lot to do with it.
We are documenting how in Cuba, common prisoners have been attacking political prisoners for any reason, but we know it’s because of their political ties, when they are mixed with other prisoners. However, psychological, and physical violence have been used in most of these cases as they are placed in celdas de castigo (punishment cells, as they’re known in Cuba) or solitary confinement. Conditions are subhuman there, minimal food, minimal light, minimal water… people have caught diseases.
These three regimes are sharing methods on how to treat dissidents or political prisoners, so their treatment is very similar. There is zero intimacy. Regarding Cuba, we have documented how political prisoners are sent to places far away from their families, and their families are unable to visit them because they don’t have money to pay for transport. It’s a matter of making their lives impossible both inside and outside of jail.
Does the same thing happen in Venezuela? Have you documented these kinds of human rights violations?
It’s a similar story in Venezuela. There’s a small difference though, and that’s because people are coming to give some political prisoners food – the Catholic Church, for example – and even members of Caritas and the Church have been treated badly, we’ve documented this. People coming to leave political prisoners food are being mistreated.
The things they have in common: isolation, zero contact with the outside world, little contact with their families, no access to medicines, no information about their conditions.
The arrest and detention of presidential candidates or aspiring candidates is another strategy, and we’ve seen this in Venezuela, as well as in Nicaragua.
You also see this in Cuba. Eduardo Cardet, president of the Christian Liberation Movement, has been attacked for being the leader of this organization. He is attacked, criminalized. He receives attacks and because there is no crime to put a political opponent behind bars, they criminalize him instead using the Penal Code and charges such as contempt, public disobedience or even attack him. He was arrested after defending himself when someone attacked them first.
Do you mean to say that Nicaragua is a step “ahead” in this regard, having created a Law of Sovereignty and Cybercrime?
Exactly, and in the case of Nicaragua, it’s really important to highlight the fact that political spaces were shut down and continue to be shut down in such a short period of time; the way the political opposition is treated and going to be treated if they decide to publicly participate in politics.
In Nicaragua’s case, suspending the legal status of NGOs is also another rung up the ladder or has this been seen in another one of these countries?
These isn’t an independent civil society movement in Cuba, but there are opposition projects, movements by people who decide to build a project to face the dictatorship in Cuba.
Nicaragua has followed this path, undermining NGOs by stripping them of their legal status. They haven’t been allowed to file their annual reports and this is the excuse the regime is using to say “you aren’t legal”, on the one hand and on the other: “As you are no longer within the legal framework, if you do anything, you’re violating the Law and you can be criminalized.”
Do you record the human rights crisis of political prisoners because they have lost all of their rights, not just their right to freedom?
Of course, but just the fact that they are being held in detention arbitrarily is already a human rights violation in itself. Their rights are violated as soon as they are arrested, firstly because they shouldn’t have been arrested arbitrarily, as it’s a violation of a basic human right, a civil and political right, and then violations of other rights abovementioned follow suit.
Why have you framed this presentation about the situation of political prisoners within the context of the Summit of the Americas?
There is a very important subject, and this is because there isn’t an agreement in public international Law about who should be considered a political prisoner. Everybody talks about political prisoners as if there were an agreed definition, but there isn’t such, and this is exactly why we want to raise the issue during the Summit of the Americas.
Everybody talks about the definition of political prisoners in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, but there isn’t a definition of who is a political prisoner, why a person is a political prisoner and what the criteria or conditions are for a person to be considered a political prisoner.
On the other hand, the idea is to highlight the strategy these three countries use, using their Penal Codes and current legislation to criminalize human rights activists or political opponents, like what happened in Nicaragua with presidential candidates. The Penal Code in force today is being wrongly and arbitrarily used to send people to trial whose only crime was, quite simply and frankly, desisting or having a different opinion to the Government’s, or for defending human rights.
Two situations are playing out in Nicaragua: prisoners who are being tried for fabricated common crimes and those who have already been sentenced with the new laws created by the Government. How do you define this category of political prisoner for release bearing in mind both scenarios?
The key lies in how the Penal Code is being used to criminalize dissidence. If the Penal Code is used in the crime of contempt, public disobedience, but we know and have documented that the person has a background in advocating for human rights. Then, there are witnesses who say that the person took part in a peaceful protest and is being arrested on these facts, not the former.
The point is how the State is using the current Penal Code to restrict activities linked to the defense and protection of human rights including freedom of speech.
Most of the people arrested both in Cuba, Nicaragua, and in Venezuela too, were arrested because they exercised their right to freedom of speech. This was what was criminalized, even though the crime they put on their file is something different.
Do you consider a common trait unlawful arrest, police witnesses, etc.?
Of course, when you talk about criminalization, you‘re talking about the entire system and the entire justice system that begins with the arrest by the Police, but then continues with pretrial detention, conditions in pretrial detention, the trial, the defense the person had access or no access to, witnesses, who witnesses are in a trial; the sentences, who the public prosecutors were who filed these charges, how much time public prosecutors are asking for, what sentence the judge grants.
When you talk about the justice system under a dictatorship, it’s not only the police or a judge that serves the State, but the entire justice apparatus. The State controls the justice system, so when it comes to serving justice, the defendant is not going to have access to an independent, fair, and unbiased trial.
This is the problem, that nobody has access to an independent, fair, and unbiased trial under a dictatorship.
How can you file for the release of political prisoners given the lack of institutionalism and the disappearance of human rights organizations? Who can the Nicaraguan people turn to?
International pressure is basic, international influence is basic, continuing to document what is happening, using mechanisms within our reach, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Many people believe that as Nicaragua is supposedly going to leave the OAS, the IACHR can’t continue to investigate them. It can continue to investigate because no country in the region is exempt from the IACHR’s supervision, whether that’s because of an American human rights convention or the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.
These countries, for example the US, English-speaking Caribbean countries, that haven’t ratified the American Convention can always have their human rights situation under the IACHR’s watchful eye, because of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.
None of these regimes will last forever. The important thing is to get things in order so that when there is a period of transitional justice, we can then work on seeking out this truth, justice, reparations and never repeating the past.
International influence, political influence within the OAS, the EU, etc., are of vital importance, in bilateral relations with countries that are key for cooperation efforts in Nicaragua, trade in Nicaragua – Cuba or Venezuela in this particular case – and to continue to document this.
Human rights violations need to continue to be documented even in dictatorships, so that when they fall, there is a process of transitional justice and people whose rights were violated can seek justice and reparations.
Should citizens be encouraged to document these human rights violations?
It’s important to encourage and try to use judicial channels available in the country, even if we know they aren’t going to work, it’s important to use them and if we can’t, then documenting and international complaints are just as important.