Latest wave of repression in Cuba targets journalists, artists and video gamers

These days it is not necessary to be a dissident to be arrested in Cuba. Just using a Cuban flag or playing on an intranet with your friends can get you in trouble with the authorities.

Users of SNET, a wireless network created on the island by video-game enthusiasts, have complained on social networks how the state security apparatus has threatened them to silence their protests after the government made their network illegal through a new decree that authorizes only private networks smaller than SNET.

”Yesterday [Aug. 15] at 11:45 pm state security came to my house,” Ernesto de Armas, one of the members of SNET, posted on Twitter. “They took me in a patrol car. They threatened me, falsely accused me of things, even threatened me with jail. I am very sad that this happens just to defend SNET in my country. I don’t hurt anyone.”

The members of the network themselves had created strict rules to ban political or pornographic material, which would have attracted the attention of the authorities, but still, the government decided to outlaw SNET.

After the state security warning, Armas said he was leaving the network for fear of reprisals against his family. He also communicated on social networks that he would not participate in a protest called by the organizers for Aug. 17 in front of the Ministry of Communications. The protest never took place, after threats from state security to several members of the network.

Police officers also prevented independent journalists from covering the protest.

“The calls began last night,” Abraham Jiménez Enoa, editor of the magazine El Estornudo, said on Twitter. “They followed very early today. Half an hour ago I was going to try to leave home and two State Security agents prevented me. They say I can’t leave my home today. That if I do they will take me to jail. They are still out there.”

In recent months, repression has targeted independent journalists who collaborate with non-state media or media abroad, as part of a broader repressive wave that has also included artists and academics and that in many cases has been based on new regulations or recently approved decrees.

“The most dramatic repression has been felt since the beginning of this year,” said Maykel González Vivero, director of the Tremenda Nota independent site, who is visiting the United States. “With the expansion of the internet, there are more and more symptoms of empowerment in civil society. The political police, government officials and bureaucrats of the Communist Party have come to feel that the situation is getting out of hand.

””The repression has to do with a position of weakness,” he added.

One of the most extreme examples is the conviction of Roberto Quiñones, a journalist for the Cubanet news site, based in Miami. Quiñones was recently sentenced to one year in jail for disobedience and resistance to the authorities. The journalist had been arrested in April, when he tried to cover the trial of an evangelical couple who was imprisoned for trying to home-school educate their children.

On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department condemned the persecution of Quiñones in a statement that called his imprisonment “just one more example of the continuing violation of human rights by the Cuban regime.”

The Cuban government is going through a difficult time, due to new sanctions by the United States and the political and economic isolation of the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, the island’s main ally. As a result, the Cuban economy is going through one of its worst periods since the crisis in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union.

New official figures reveal that the country has borrowed rapidly and that the economy has suffered due to the weight of the sanctions, the decrease in oil shipments from Venezuela and the onslaught of hurricanes. Raúl Castro, who leads the Communist Party, warned Cubans that they should prepare for more shortages.

There is also the political vulnerability that came with the transfer of power, although controlled, from Castro to Miguel Díaz-Canel, who replaced him at the head of the government in April 2018. A sign of that weakness was the approval in February of a new Constitution with an unprecedented number of No votes and abstentions.

”They don’t have a charismatic leader,” Gonzalez Vivero said. “Díaz-Canel represents a new generation that cannot appeal to the history [of the Cuban revolution] to legitimize itself. They tried to renew the Constitution and implement laws to regulate areas where [civil society] groups had grown, but if this does not work, they are willing to close all spaces and appeal to repression if necessary.”

The authorities are particularly interested in not losing control of public spaces.

“I was arrested three times, and they all have something in common: I was covering events on site,” said González Vivero. The independent artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara also tested the government’s determination to avoid any public demonstrations and ended up arrested last week, accused of “provocation” and “public disorder” after leaving his home covered with a Cuban flag.

Otero Alcántara said he wanted to question notions of identity and demystify the use of the flag, recently regulated by a new law regulating the use of “national symbols.”

“I knew I was going to end up in prison,” he told el Nuevo Herald from Havana. “I walk with the flag 24 hours a day as a second skin.”

The arrest of Otero Alcántara, however, led him and other artists to launch the “flag challenge” on social media. Hundreds of Cubans began publishing photos of themselves wearing the flag.

The case of Otero Alcántara illustrates one of the biggest challenges facing the government of Diaz-Canel, who has personally advocated for the expansion of internet access on the island.

After the government made the internet accessible on cellphones last year, it has faced for the first time the power of social networks, where Cubans have criticized officials, reported violations of their rights and organized. A march in April for animal rights and another in May for the rights of the LGBTQ community were largely organized through the networks.

In addition to arrests and threats, state security has reacted by applying tried and tested strategies, such as travel bans, against artists, academics and journalists.

“Immigration authorities have prevented me from traveling to Argentina because they say I have ‘an exit ban,’ ” Luz Escobar, a journalist with the independent news site 14ymedio, wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “Three months ago, I was also prevented from traveling to the USA with the same reason. As on that occasion, they did not know how to tell me the causes.”

A day earlier, on Saturday, authorities had warned Escobar not to leave his house to cover the peaceful protest called by members of the SNET.

When they have not been able to resort to written regulations, the government has used ideological arguments, as in the case of the dismissal of university professor Omara Ruiz Urquiola, sister of biologist and activist Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, who was sentenced for “contempt” to one year in prison in May 2018. The scientist was released two months later after a hunger strike, but the harassment of his family has not stopped.

Omara Ruiz Urquiola, who suffers from cancer, was terminated at the end of July from her job at the Higher Institute of Design in Havana, after an alleged rearrangement of the workforce. But she told el Nuevo Herald that she met all the requirements to stay in her job.

The dismissal “is a reprisal for the position I have maintained,” she said in a phone call from the island. “I don’t participate in their political harangues. They know what my position is.”

The professor said she feared that in retaliation, the government would not supply the medicines she needs for treatment, which has already happened on another occasion.

“The weapon they have against me is my health,” she said.

Days after the dismissal of Ruiz Urquiola, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Martha del Carmen Mesa Valenciano, published a text on the ministry’s official site in which she made public the true reasons for the dismissal, in a warning to the rest of the university professors:

”He who does not feel as an activist for the revolutionary politics of our Party, a defender of our ideology, of our morals, of our political convictions, must resign from being a university professor.”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres