IACHR and Offices of Special Rapporteurs Condemn Harassment of Artists, Journalists, and Activists in Cuba and Call on State to Cease Acts of Persecution Against Those Exercising the Right to Freedom of Expression and Artistic Creation

May 13, 2021

Washington, D.C. — The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Offices of its Special Rapporteur for the Freedom of Expression (RFOE) and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (OSRESCER) condemned the harassment of artists, journalists, and human rights defenders in Cuba and called on the State to cease acts of persecution targeting those who are exercising their right to freedom of expression.

Since the start of 2021, the IACHR, the RFOE, and the OSRESCER have been following the escalation of repression against freelance journalists, artists, and human rights defenders who exercise their right to freedom of expression and artistic creation in the country. In this context, the two organizations are particularly concerned by the harassment of members of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), who have been targeted by the Political Police and the Department of State Security since November 2020. In the weeks and months following the iconic November 27 protest, numerous arrests of individuals who were part of the MSI and its allies were documented. These individuals are being subjected to continual police surveillance outside their homes, which could amount to house arrest.

On April 3, the RFOE reported the alleged arbitrary detention of artist and MSI coordinator Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara. According to public information, several activists allegedly went to the Habana Vieja police station to enquire about his whereabouts and demand his release, which allegedly led to the arrest of Carolina Barrero, Maykel "Osorbo" Castillo, Amaury Pacheco, Yenisleidys Borroto, and Eliexer Márquez. According to activist Anamely Ramos, they were allegedly "beaten whilst being forcibly moved" to another police station in Cerro municipality. Likewise, on April 5, activists and journalists Luis Manuel Otero, Héctor Luis Valdés, Esteban Rodríguez, María Matienzo, Kirenia Yailit, and Manuel Cruz were reportedly detained in Havana. Furthermore, opposition activist Bárbaro de Céspedes allegedly remained missing for a week in Camagüey after being detained outside Nuestra Señora de la Merced when he was handing out flyers containing José Martí quotes.

More recently, on April 16, officers from the political police force allegedly raided the headquarters of the MSI and confiscated and destroyed several artworks by Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who was then arrested by State security agents. According to the available information, the artist was allegedly targeted in connection with "El Garrote Vil," a performance piece that he live-streamed through his social media accounts and which he said intended to speak out against "the arbitrary way in which activists and opponents are hounded in Cuba" and the legal system, which hands down disproportionate sentences for those who decide to express themselves in a manner that runs contrary to the interests of the regime. Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was released at noon on April 17, after being held for 16 hours. He stated that he had been taken to three different police units and reportedly spent the night in a cell in the third of these, the Cotorro unit.

According to other information received by the organizations, between April 17 and 25, Luis Manuel Otero was reportedly detained approximately eight times within 100 meters of the entry to his home. On April 25, after speaking out against the persistent harassment he experienced when attempting to leave his residence and evade this illegal house arrest, the artist went on a hunger and thirst strike to demand that the State returned the work that had been confiscated and make a public apology. He also called for freedom of expression and an end to police harassment, which included a police fence in his neighborhood, a surveillance camera outside his front door, and, according to reports by the MSI, internet shutdowns in the area where he lives. At the same time, several members of the MSI who attempted to protest Luis Manuel Otero's predicament were allegedly detained and prevented from leaving their homes.

On May 2, the eighth day of his hunger and thirst strike, Luis Manuel Otero was admitted to the Emergency Department of General Calixto García University Hospital, according to a press release from the Havana Provincial Health Authority. In it, they indicated that "there were no signs of malnutrition" and that the activist had been hospitalized and was receiving medical attention but was within "normal clinical and biochemical parameters." According to the information received, there has been heavy police deployment around the hospital since the artist was admitted. Members of the MSI and civil society organizations warned that State security agents had forced Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara to leave his home and had hospitalized him against his will. They also called the official press release into question and demanded more information.

The IACHR, the RFOE, and the OSRESCER have not received further information concerning Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara's state of health. Civil society organizations have spoken out against the lack of transparency on the issue on the part of the State. According to public reports, the MSI filed a writ of habeas corpus in favor of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara with the Provincial People's Court of Havana, which was allegedly denied by the Fourth Criminal Court on May 5. In view of this uncertainty, the organization called on the international community to monitor Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara's situation closely.

The IACHR also noted that Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and 20 other members of the MSI are beneficiaries of the precautionary measures issued by the IACHR on February 11, 2021, as it deemed to be at serious, urgent risk of suffering irreparable harm to their human rights in Cuba.

In this context, the IACHR, the RFOE, and the OSRESCER noted once again that in addition to guaranteeing all people the right to freedom of expression and the expression and dissemination of ideas, the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man establishes the right to take part in the cultural life of the community, protects artists and their work, and safeguards the right to work in conditions of freedom and dignity. These rights are affected interdependently in the events described above in relation to the MSI and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara. Likewise, the IACHR, the RFOE, and the OSRESCER called upon the State of Cuba to provide effective protection for artists' right to take part in cultural life and to enjoy the protection of their moral and material interests, without discrimination.

Furthermore, regarding Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara's current predicament, the offices of the special rapporteurs emphasized the fact that hunger strikes are a form of peaceful social protest and that individuals' freedom of expression and autonomy must be guaranteed, as must the right to health and welfare. Specifically, the State must ensure that those who choose to protest in this way have consensual access to healthcare without threats, pressure, or coercion on the part of the State.

The events described above are compounded by several acts of harassment against freelance journalists that the RFOE monitored throughout the first quarter of 2021. These included hindering them from leaving their homes, arbitrary detention, harassment of their nuclear families, and judicial threats. According to the information received by the officers, since February 2021, journalists and management staff at the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and the Press (ICLEP), a Cuban organization that also publishes seven free newspapers in the country, have reportedly been subjected to continual interrogations and threats on the part of the State Security Department.

The Cuban Observatory for Human Rights (OCDH) has documented 478 "acts of repression" on the part of Cuban security forces in March and 1018 in April, noting that the latter figure is the highest so far in 2021 and is the worst of the last 12 months. According to the organization, "arbitrary raids on activists' homes was once again the main form of repression that was used."

Likewise, Prisoners Defenders (PD) recently published data revealing that at least 145 people are being deprived of their liberty with political convictions in Cuba. According to the organization, since May 2020, 59 new people have become political prisoners, and no pardons or commutations have been granted. There have also been reports that these individuals have been subjected to torture and ill-treatment.

As the IACHR and the RFOE have warned on previous occasions, there is a practice of persecution and harassment in Cuba against freelance journalists and independent media outlets, human rights defenders, and artists who speak out against the lack of freedoms and political rights or who are involved in political affairs. In their Special Report on the Freedom of Expression in Cuba, they emphasized that there is systematic repression in the country by state agents and pro-government groups seeking to prevent protests or peaceful gatherings organized by human rights defenders, activists, or dissidents to speak out against human rights violations and/or political social issues.

Furthermore, in recent years, particularly as part of its Report on the Human Rights Situation in Cuba, the IACHR has reported on the existence of far-reaching State monitoring of demonstrations, which are allegedly subject to surveillance. Generally speaking, activities involving dissidents are intervened in, and those taking part are subjected to violent repression and arrest. The IACHR has learned that these arrests seek to discourage demonstrations that criticize the government, hinder the free expression of opinions and ideas, impede the work of those who defend and promote fundamental rights, and prevent new leaders from emerging.

In keeping with what was described in those reports, the IACHR, the RFOE, and the OSRESCER called on the State to recognize and protect the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, without discrimination on grounds of political opinion. They also drew attention to the recommendations made in the above report regarding the need to end the harassment of activists, artists, and freelance journalists who exercise their right to freedom of expression as quickly as possible.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression was created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to encourage the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the Americas, given the fundamental role that this right plays in the consolidation and development of the democratic system.

The OSRESCER is an office of the IACHR that was specifically created to support the IACHR in fulfilling its mandate to promote and protect economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights in the Americas.

The IACHR is a principal and autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), whose mandate derives from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote the observance and defense of human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The IACHR is composed of seven independent members who are elected by the OAS General Assembly in their personal capacity, and do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 119/21