Oscar Casanella, a 35-year old cancer researcher in Havana, says he just wanted to have a party for Ciro Díaz, a close friend who plays in a punk-rock band.
Problem is, Díaz is lead guitarist for Porno Para Ricardo, a band whose expletive-filled lyrics include attacks on Cuba’s former ruler, Fidel Castro: “The Comandante wants me to applaud after he’s spoken his delirious s---.”
So Casanella’s party turned into an example of how Cuba’s communist system tries to grind down the citizens it finds objectionable, starting out with low-level threats and ratcheting up the pressure if the targets refuse to change their behavior.
Cuban police and State Security agents can beat dissidents, arrest them for brief periods to harass or intimidate them, search their homes, seize their phones and computers, listen in on their conversations, and throw them out of school.
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“But they also have psychological pressures, like anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night, a car that comes too close, an agent who stands there just to make sure you know he’s watching you,” dissident Guillermo Fariñas told a Miami audience last year.
Casanella said Díaz, a friend since high school, called him at the end of a trip to Europe to say that he was returning to Havana on Dec. 6, 2013, a Friday. Casanella promised him a welcome-back party at his own home that Saturday.
“That’s where the Kafka-esque machinery started,” wrote Lilian Ruiz, who first reported the case July 4 on Cubanet, a Miami-based portal for news on Cuba.
On the Thursday before the party, four elderly men and women he did not know approached him as he left his home in the Plaza neighborhood of Havana and threatened him, Casanella told el Nuevo Herald on Thursday.
“They said, ‘You cannot have any activities or parties these days,’ that other people could harm me, and they also could harm me,” he said. He asked what right they had to threaten him, but they refused to identify themselves and walked away.
Casanella said he presumed the four knew about the party from State Security monitors of Diaz’s telephone calls or perhaps his own. He has attended meetings of the dissident group Estado de SATS but said he does not consider himself to be a dissident.
He phoned police the same night to report the incident but got nowhere, he said. When he went to his nearest police station Saturday, officers refused to write down his complaint. But they called in one of the men who had threatened him “and in front of me told him to stop and treated him like a little child.”
Neighbors later told him the four were former officials of his neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, a pro-government watchdog organization, who were operating as a sort of auxiliary to State Security, said Casanella.
He walked out of the police station thinking the harassment would stop. But as he arrived home, two men in civilian clothes identified themselves as State Security agents and asked to talk to him inside the house — but refused to show any IDs.
“They looked more like delinquents than officers, and I said no,” Casanella said. The men then turned up the threats. “They said they could mess up my life, mess up my family, put me in jail, that I could think whatever I wanted, but not say it.”
The party nevertheless went on that Saturday, the researcher said, with about 50 people dancing and drinking plus four men in civilian clothes watching the front and back of the house and a neighbor writing down the license plates of all the cars parked outside.
The pressure went up another notch Monday when Casanella returned to work at the National Oncology and Radiology Institute, where he’s studying for his doctorate. Supervisor Pedro Fernández Cabezas warned him that he could lose his job. His work environment “turned hostile,” and he was left out of a new project.
Worse still, he was turned away when he appealed to Lorenzo Anasagasti, a supervisor and mentor who had sponsored him for a scholarship in Switzerland from 2011-2013.
“He told me that if State Security ordered him to throw me out of this institution, he would do it because he loves his children more than anything,” Casanella said
“I was already very nervous. And that tipped me over, from the psychological point of view,” Casanella recalled.
Nothing more happened until April, when he was summoned to the neighborhood police station for a meeting with Capt. Jose Antonio Blasco Pérez. The captain led him to a room with three State Security agents. Again, no names, just threats.
They called his dissident friends “mercenaries, terrorists,” Casanella said. They said they could have him fired or transferred to a less important research job or even to a common neighborhood clinic. They told him they could hurt his relatives.
He asked to file a complaint with the police right then and there, he said. The police again refused.
Casanella sounded almost incredulous as he recounted his tale, and said he had repeatedly asked the State Security agents, the police and his supervisors what right they had to threaten him and try to force him to abandon his friends.
He rounded up letters of support from some workers at his institute. He wrote letters of complaint to Cuban ruler Raúl Castro and to the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police and State Security, and even to prosecutors.
The prosecutors responded in a July 1 letter. The police and State Security have no record or memory of any meetings with Casanella, they said.