While the new U.S. president's policies on Cuba remain uncertain, the government in Havana appears to be more nervous about its domestic opposition than usual, as the island heads into a complicated political transition.
Authorities have expelled students from universities, arrested dissidents who want to run in the next elections and forced others into exile. The phones of dissidents and human rights activists also are tapped, making communication with journalists abroad difficult — all part of a campaign to crush criticism at a crucial time.
“There is a campaign of annihilation in 2017,” said Eliécer Ávila, a young Havana engineer who founded Somos +. He was reached by phone after several failed calls by el Nuevo Herald.
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A member of his organization, Karla María Pérez González, was expelled from a university journalism program last month. Ávila, who wants to run in the next municipal elections, said a police raid of his home seized almost everything he owned.
“In my house the police were like a moving company. I don't even have a computer, and I have a borrowed cell. All this limits your ability to communicate, to exist in politics,” Ávila said.
He said the crackdown is part of an attempt to “clear the field for Feb. 24, to eliminate the voices that can undermine the official line.”
Cuban ruler Raúl Castro is expected to retire around that date, which will mark the start of the next legislative session.
That's why the government “is so deeply afraid,” said attorney Laritza Diversent, director of Cubalex, which offers independent legal advice and has proposed several reforms to the electoral system. Cubalex is not recognized by the government.
Diversent said she was so concerned about the impact her activism might have on her 17-year-old son that she decided to ask for political asylum in the United States. She and several other Cubalex activists recently left the island for the U.S.
“You can't work when you're afraid of what can happen to your family and your son,” she said by phone from her new home in Memphis, Tennessee, where she was relocated by an agency that helps refugees. “I am committed to my work and I love Cuba, but I am a mother.”
Diversent, one of the Cuban activists who met with former President Barack Obama in Havana last year and in Panama in 2015, spoke of the “paranoia” and “psychological damage” she suffered in recent months at the hands of state security agents.
“No one can stop them. You are totally vulnerable. You can lose your home, your freedom,” she said.
State security agents in September raided Diversent's home, which served as the headquarters for Cubalex, seizing computers and case files and detaining several lawyers. She was later accused of falsifying ownership papers for her home.
Since the government does not recognize the vast majority of independent organizations like Cubalex, their members cannot legally rent office space and wind up operating out of the homes of members or spaces loaned by others — making them more vulnerable to accusations, for example, of “illegal economic activity.”
Police recently raided the home in the western Pinar del Río province of Karina Valdés, which serves as the offices of the lay Catholic Convivencia magazine, and accused her of tax evasion. State security agents also interrogated magazine director Dagoberto Valdés, who had denounced an increase in political repression since 2016.
Baptist Pastor Mario Félix Lleonart, who founded the Patmos Institute in 2013 to push for freedom of religion and an interfaith dialogue, said there is a similar pattern of police harassment at churches and other organizations that make their space available to his group.
“After we held our meetings … the government showed up to intimidate the institutions that collaborated with us,” Lleonart said. He added that his group is not legally registered and has no offices, “things that you can do anywhere in the world.”
Lleonart said he believes the government harasses his institute because it also promotes education about human rights and political work.
“We believe that religious people, aside from exercising their own freedoms, should influence political leaders and those who govern the country,” he said.
Authorities “are afraid” of that kind of political activism, Lleonart added, because although “political groups in Cuba are small and fragmented, religious groups are pretty big, have a much longer history and are growing a lot.
“Obviously, they know that's a dangerous mass of people,” he said.
Lleonart and his family won U.S. political asylum last year after several violent arrests, but the harassment of members of his group has not stopped. One of its coordinators, Felix Llerena, was recently expelled from a university in Havana he was attending to become a teacher.
New repressive tactics
The latest monthly report by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) tallied 140 political prisoners, twice the number in most of 2016. The April report also reported 475 politically motivated detentions during the month.
The Cuban government denies the existence of political prisoners and brands dissidents as traitors and mercenaries paid by U.S. officials. It does not recognize the CCDHRN, which operates out of its director's home.
The press office at the Cuban embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
The CCDHRN's April report also notes that the repression has expanded to more parts of the island but become “less noisy.” Among the mechanisms mentioned were police threats, bans on travel abroad or even within Cuba, searches of homes, arbitrary seizures of materials and money, surveillance and defamation campaigns, and disproportionate fines for alleged infractions.
Diversent — who is described as an “anti-Cuban mercenary” in EcuRed, Cuba's version of Wikipedia — said Cubalex had been studying how authorities are changing the mechanisms for harassing and repressing independent groups.
Although the number of politically motivated detentions has been falling so far this year in comparison to 2016, she said, “the repression has intensified because they are targeting the private lives of activists. The home searches, the raids and the threats to relatives have increased.”
Heavy fines and “the use of the law for repression purposes” are frequently used to intimidate activists and dissidents, Diversent added.
The leader of the Ladies in White, Berta Soler, has complained for months about the heavy fines imposed on members of the dissident organization. She told el Nuevo Herald by phone from Havana that state security agents also have threatened some of the women's relatives with jail. Rey Hanoi Barrueto, 17, the son of member Aliuska Gómez, is in prison for an alleged brawl although the accuser has disappeared, she added.
Soler, who was scheduled to fly to the U.S. for meetings over the weekend, was not allowed to board a plane, she said.
This kind of repression, compared to the Venezuelan government's violent repression of protest marchers, is “covert and invisible,” said Diversent.
“We can see what's happening in Venezuela,” she said. “But in Cuba, it's difficult to show the psychological damage caused by all the smears. They can break down the door to your home.
“Every Sunday, they beat up the Ladies in White, and nothing happens,” she said. “That winds up affecting you profoundly.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres en Twitter: @ngameztorres