The number of prisoners held on political charges in Cuba doubled to 90 in the past 10 months despite the government’s preference for short-term detentions to control dissent, a Havana human rights group reported Tuesday.
About 30 of the new prisoners are leaders and members of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU), a dissident group that has achieved a surprisingly active presence in the eastern part of the island since it was founded in mid-2011.
The number of jailings is evidence that police “are ready to repress with the utmost force in order to paralyze the visible advances of UNPACU,” founder José Daniel Ferrér Gárcia said by phone from his home in the eastern town of Palmarito de Cauto.
Ferrer was one of the 120-plus political prisoners freed in 2010 and 2011 as part of an agreement between Cuba ruler Raúl Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega. He had been in prison since a 2003 crackdown on 75 dissidents known as Cuba’s “Black Spring.”
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation noted in its report that the number of Cubans convicted or awaiting trials on political crimes had risen from 45 in March of last year to 90 as of last week.
Commission leader Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz wrote in the report that the jump “reaffirms the Cuban government in first place in the Western Hemisphere, and in most of the world, for the number of people sentenced to prison for political reasons.”
The number of political prisoners freed under so-called “Temporary Penal Permits” — essentially paroles that are generally granted for health reasons but can be revoked any time — dropped from 18 to 16 because two left the country, according to the report.
But the list of 90 political prisoners compiled by the commission does not include all of the cases because the government often jails dissidents on criminal rather than political charges, the report noted.
The commission counts as political crimes any cases tried in Cuba’s national security court system. Its list therefore includes people convicted of “crimes against the state,” such as trying to hijack boats and spying. It also includes dissidents jailed under a catch-all charge known as “pre-criminal social dangerousness.”
Sánchez also noted that the number of political prisoners increased even though for the past decade authorities appeared to prefer to harass and intimidate dissidents with short-term arrests rather than putting them on trials that might attract foreign attention.
“Despite this change in repressive tactics, the essentially freedom-killing nature of the totalitarian model has sent new political prisoners to jails,” he wrote.
Cuba currently holds 60,000 to 65,000 prisoners in 150 to 200 prisons, jails, labor camps and other forced internment facilities, Sánchez said, under conditions that are mostly “cruel, inhuman, degrading and unhealthy” and getting worse.
“It is a sub-Orwellian world,” he noted, in which the Cuban government does not permit any visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross or even independent Cuban observers.
Meanwhile, dissidents in the north central city of Sagua la Grande reported that police arrested several government opponents and fired some sort of toxic gas into the house where they were meeting Tuesday after a confrontation Monday.
Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as Antúnez, reported that those arrested were among the 12 members of the Central Opposition Coalition who tried to stage a protest march Monday but were forced back into a home by police and civilian government supporters. About 2-3 a.m. Tuesday, police “launched gas, a strange liquid that we don’t know what it is,” into the house and dissidents suffered skin eruptions and itching, he told the Cuban Democratic Directory in Miami.