Cuban police release and then again detain performance artist Tania Bruguera

Cuban artist Tania Bruguera.
Cuban artist Tania Bruguera. Getty Images

In the first test of U.S. commitment to upholding human rights in Cuba since Washington and Havana announced normalization of diplomatic ties, the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about this week’s crackdown on activists.

The State Department’s response came late Tuesday — the same day the Cuban government headed off a free-speech rally planned for Havana’s Revolution Square by arresting and detaining activists who planned to take up a microphone and individually share their thoughts and concerns about Cuba’s future for one minute each.

Cuban expatriate artist Tania Bruguera, who spearheaded the event organized by the #YoTambienExijo (I also demand) movement, was arrested Tuesday morning in anticipation of the afternoon rally, freed briefly Wednesday afternoon and then once again detained. She had planned to hold a news conference at the Monument to the Victims of the Maine along Havana’s Malecon at 4 p.m.

“We are deeply concerned about the latest reports of detentions and arrests by Cuban authorities of peaceful civil society members and activists,” the State Department said in a release, “including Luis Quintana Rodriguez, Antonio Rodiles, Danilo Maldonado, Reinaldo Escobar, Marcelino Abreu Bonora and Eliécer Ávila.” Dissident groups also reported at least several more confirmed detentions.

“We strongly condemn the Cuban government’s continued harassment and repeated use of arbitrary detention, at times with violence, to silence critics, disrupt peaceful assembly and freedom expression, and intimidate citizens,” the State Department said.

Blogger Yoani Sánchez said she was placed under house arrest and several other independent journalists were warned against covering the event by State Security officers. Sánchez’s husband, Escobar, and Avila were arrested when they left the Nuevo Vedado building where Escobar and Sánchez live.

Sánchez’s independent news service 14ymedio reported Wednesday that Escobar had been released Tuesday night and that two police patrols stationed outside the building where she lives had been withdrawn. Avila also was released.

After her initial detention, Bruguera was taken to the de Acosta police station. In a telephone conversation posted by #YoTambienExijo, Bruguera said authorities confiscated her passport and wanted her to sign a declaration that the intention of her planned event was to create a public disturbance. She said she refused.

Bruguera,who lives in the United States and specializes in political art, arrived in Cuba Friday. When she was first released, she said she had been led to believe the other activists also had been freed but that Cuban authorities had lied.

Although human rights groups and Cuban exile organizations came to Bruguera’s defense, the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba said the aborted rally shouldn’t in any sense be interpreted as “an artistic work” but rather as a “political provocation” that is counter to the negotiations to normalize diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The United States and Cuba announced Dec. 17 that after 53 years of isolation, Havana and Washington would renew diplomatic relations. At his year-end news conference two days later, President Barack Obama said that didn’t mean that “over the next two years we can anticipate them taking certain actions that we may end up finding deeply troubling either inside of Cuba or with respect to their foreign policy.”

The president said the United States would “continue to press on issues of democracy and human rights, which we think are important” and that normalizing relations “gives us a greater opportunity to have influence with that government than not.”

The White House has said that it plans to make human rights and democracy major themes at April’s Summit of the Americas, which both Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro are expected to attend.

“Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are internationally recognized human rights, and the Cuban government’s lack of respect for these rights, as demonstrated by today’s detentions, is inconsistent with Hemispheric norms and commitments,” the State Department said. “We urge the Government of Cuba to end its practice of repressing these and other internationally protected freedoms and to respect the universal human rights of Cuban citizens.

“We have always said we would continue to speak out about human rights, and as part of the process of normalization of diplomatic relations, the United States will continue to press the Cuban government to uphold its international obligations and to respect the rights of Cubans to peacefully assemble and express their ideas and opinions, just like their fellow members of civil society throughout the Americas are allowed to do.”

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Nora Gámez Torres contributed to this report.

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