Freedom of Expression

Press Release R189/21

The Office of the Special Rapporteur expresses concern over the reports of serious human rights violations in the context of the protests in Cuba

July 23, 2021.

Washington D.C. - The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its concern over the reports received on serious human rights violations through the days of protest that began on July 11 in Cuba. In addition to reiterating its condemnation of the acts of repression denounced during the demonstrations, the Office of the Special Rapporteur notes that:

The reports received from civil society are serious and deserve attention from the authorities and the international community. According to information received, the days of protest were followed by a police deployment both in the streets and in homes, which would have lasted for several days. The events reported include the detention of hundreds of protesters, the incommunicado detention of detainees, and the uncertainty of relatives of their whereabouts.  In addition, actions of surveillance and monitoring of homes, and opening of summary judicial processes without adequately guaranteeing the right to a defense for all persons under State custody were reported. Among those detained would be a significant number of young people, activists, artists, journalists, medical personnel, teachers, and priests of various religious denominations. This Office has been informed about the first prison sentences as a result of the July 11 protests through a summary trial in which most of the defendants did not have legal defense and in which twelve people received jail sentences ranging from 10-month to 1 year.

The scarce official information available does not respond to the dimension of the phenomenon reported. In an extensive interview, police authorities and the Public Prosecutor's Office denied that there was a single person disappeared, they affirmed that there are no unknown or secret places of detention on the island and, when referring to the lists that are being circulated and that are of public knowledge, they indicated that there would be: i) persons released for not having committed crimes; ii) persons administratively fined; iii) persons who have been issued a "non-detention" precautionary measure, such as bonds, home confinement, or obligation to present themselves to the authorities; and iv) indicted persons with files in the preparatory phase under pre-trial detention. This information is insufficient in that it does not indicate how many people would be in each of the conditions described by the Cuban authorities and does not specify the charges for which they are detained or punished.

The State’s approach to the crisis in Cuba ignores international standards on the right to protest. The IACHR calls on all the States of the Americas to comply with their international duty to act on the basis of the legality of the protests and under the assumption that they do not constitute a threat to public order. This general presumption in favor of the exercise of the right of assembly and association is based on the imperative social interest in the consolidation and operation of societies. In the particular case of Cuba, the Office of the Special Rapporteur has been able to verify that the various calls from citizens to demonstrate publicly have been emphatic in their peaceful nature. However, since the beginning of the protests, the authorities have chosen to describe the demonstrations as acts of disorder, vandalism, riots, and provocation, and the protesters as "instigators", "enemies", "worms" and "Counterrevolutionaries." These stigmatizing accusations can encourage a confrontation between citizens, generate a climate of permissiveness to abuse of authority, and inhibit legitimate expressions, discouraging the exercise of the rights of expression, assembly, and association on matters of public interest.

Cuban civil society has denounced a general atmosphere of fear and self-censorship. This Office received reports in which it is indicated that relatives of detained or disappeared persons have chosen not to ask the authorities, denounce, or publicly expose the cases for fear that this could put their life or integrity at risk, worsen the detention conditions, or aggravate the legal consequences. In addition to the hundreds of reported cases of repression, criminalization, and stigmatization of the protest, there are also allegations of militarization of cities, police surveillance, and alterations to internet access, these actions form a barrier to public deliberation, seriously compromises the guarantees of present and future freedom of expression of Cuban society as a whole and makes it difficult for information to flow for international observation of what is happening on the island.

The press has denounced being the constant target of physical attacks, intimidation, detentions, and virtual attacks on its news portals. Some communication media in the interior of the country have been inoperative due to the prolonged detentions of their reporters, others have had to suspend the distribution of newspapers and in some municipalities the action of taking a cell phone in the street triggers immediate police reprimand. In a scenario characterized by a lack of relevant official information on the human rights violations reported, quality and professional independent journalism becomes more necessary and important than ever. The Office of the Special Rapporteur recognizes the efforts of the local and international press in covering what is happening on the island and encourages them to continue their work.

In view of the foregoing, the Office of the Special Rapporteur reiterates its condemnation of the denounced acts of repression and the use of force and warns about the opacity of the arrests and the activation of summary trials without the assistance of lawyers to defend the defendants. The Rapporteur's office calls for the prompt and urgent reflection of the international community so that human rights multilateral instruments and mechanisms contribute to facilitating full guarantees of the rights of assembly, association, and free expression. Likewise, it insists on its call to the State to initiate a dialogue and to cease its distancing from international human rights systems.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is an office created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to encourage the hemispheric defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression, considering its fundamental role in the consolidation and development of the democratic system.