Detained protesters in Cuba could face up to 30 years in prison as they face the largest and most punitive mass trial on the island since the early years of the revolution.
The prosecutor’s office this week brought to trial more than 60 citizens accused of crimes, including rebellion, for participating in demonstrations against the country’s economic crisis in the summer, human rights activists and relatives of the detainees said.
Among those being prosecuted are at least five minors aged 16. They are among more than 620 detainees who have been or are to be tried for joining the biggest popular uprising against the communist government since it came to power in 1959.
The seriousness of the allegations is part of a concerted government effort to curb further public expressions of discontent, activists said. The crackdown has also dashed longstanding hopes of gradual liberalization under President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who succeeded Fidel Castro’s brother Raúl in 2018 to become the first non-Castro leader in Cuba since 1959.
“There is an empire of fear here,” said Daniel Triana, a Cuban actor and activist who was briefly detained following the protests. “Repressions here do not kill directly, but force them to choose between prison and exile.”
For six decades, Cuba has lived under a harsh US trade embargo. The Cuban government has long placed the blame for the collapse of the country’s economy solely on Washington, diverting attention from the consequences of mismanagement in Havana and severe restrictions on private enterprise.
On July 11, an unexpected protest erupted in Cuba as thousands of people, many from the country’s poorest areas, marched through cities and towns to denounce rising inflation, power outages and worsening food and medicine shortages.
Scenes of mass discontent, widespread on social networks, destroyed the idea promoted by the Cuban leadership that the people support the ruling Communist Party, despite economic difficulties.
Initially caught off guard, the government responded with the worst crackdown in decades, sending in military units to quell the protests. More than 1,300 demonstrators were detained, according to the human rights organization Cubalex and Justice J11, an umbrella organization for Cuban civil society groups that monitors the aftermath of the summer riots.
The Cuban government did not respond to requests for comment sent through the foreign media office.
The scale of the government’s reaction shocked longtime oppositionists and Cuban observers.
Cuba’s leaders have always been quick to respond to any public discontent, imprisoning protesters and persecuting dissidents. But previous crackdowns have tended to focus on relatively small groups of political activists.
By contrast, the massive lawsuits, which began in December, are targeting people who had largely nothing to do with politics for the first time in decades before they left their homes to join the crowd calling for change, historians and activists say.
“This is something completely new,” said Marta Beatriz Roque, a prominent Cuban dissident convicted of sedition in 2003 along with 74 other activists and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Their sentences were eventually commuted and most were allowed to go into exile.
“There’s not a drop of compassion left, and that’s the difference” with the past, she said by phone from her home in Havana.
Yoswani Garcia, a 33-year-old welder, has never protested or been in trouble with the law, says his wife, Mailin Rodriguez. On July 11, he came home for lunch as usual from his workshop in the provincial capital of Holguin.
But on his way back to work, he ran into a crowd demanding political change, Ms. Rodriguez said. Driven by outrage at the unbearable cost of living, she said, Mr. Garcia joined the march.
He was beaten by the police, who dispersed the rally later that day, but returned home to his wife that same night. Four days later, the police cornered him near his home and put him in jail.
On Wednesday, Mr. Garcia was charged with sedition along with 20 other protesters, including five teenagers aged 17 and 16, the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Cuba. All face a penalty of imprisonment for at least five years; Mr. Garcia faces a 30-year sentence.
Aftermath of street protests in Cuba in 2021
Mass trials begin. More than 60 Cuban citizens are facing trial in Cuba on charges of crimes, including sedition, for participating in demonstrations against the country’s economic crisis last summer. Among those brought to criminal responsibility are at least five minors aged 16 years.
In July, Rowland Castillo was 17 years old when he was detained for participating in a protest in the working-class suburb of the capital, Havana. According to his mother, Yudinela Castro, a provincial champion in wrestling, one of the most popular sports in Cuba, Mr. Castillo attended the state sports academy and never became politically active.
She said she only realized he had joined the protest when police arrested him a few days later. Prosecutors are seeking a 23-year prison sentence for him for sedition.
Ms. Castro said that after her son’s arrest, she was fired from the state food market where she worked. Now she lives on donations from neighbors and well-wishers in an abandoned public emergency clinic with her 2-year-old grandson – Mr. Castillo’s son – while she tries to recover from cancer.
“Thanks to him, I realized what evil is happening in this country,” she said, referring to her imprisoned son. “He did nothing but come out and ask for freedom.”
At first, the ascent of Mr. Diaz-Canel, 61, to the presidency in 2018 raised hopes for gradual change in some quarters.
He did not belong to the old guard that came to power with Castro. While in office, he tried to streamline Cuba’s tangled currency system and pushed through reforms to expand the private sector in an attempt to alleviate the devastating economic crisis caused by the pandemic, sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, and dwindling aid from the island’s socialist ally Venezuela.
But Mr. Diaz-Canel, who was born after the revolution, could not remember the anti-imperialist struggle of the Castro brothers to hide the ever-decreasing standard of living. When protests broke out, he responded with force.
“They have no intention of changing,” said Salome Garcia, an activist for the human rights organization Justice J11, “to allow Cuban society to have any part in determining its fate.”