Detained protesters in Cuba face up to 30 years in prison as they face the largest and most punitive mass trials on the island since the early years of the revolution.
Prosecutors this week tried more than 60 civilians charged with crimes, including sedition, for participating in demonstrations against the country’s economic crisis over the summer, human rights activists and relatives of the detainees said.
Among those being prosecuted are at least five minors under the age of 16. They are among more than 620 detainees on trial or to be tried for participating in the largest outburst of popular discontent against the communist government since it took power in 1959.
The gravity of the charges is part of a concerted effort by the government to deter further public expressions of discontent, activists said. The crackdown also put an end to lingering hopes of gradual liberalization under President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who replaced Fidel Castro’s brother Raúl in 2018 to become Cuba’s first leader from outside the Castro family since 1959.
“What rules here is a realm of fear,” said Daniel Triana, a Cuban actor and activist who was detained shortly after the protests. “The repression here does not kill directly, but forces you to choose between prison and exile.”
For six decades, Cuba has lived under a punitive US trade embargo. The Cuban government has long attributed the country’s crumbling economy solely to Washington, diverting attention from the effects of Havana’s own mismanagement and strict restrictions on private enterprise.
Cuba exploded into unexpected protest on July 11, as thousands of people, many from the country’s poorest neighborhoods, marched through towns and villages to denounce rising inflation, power outages and mounting food and medicine shortages.
The scenes of mass discontent — widely shared on social media — shattered the idea propagated by Cuban leaders that popular support for the ruling Communist Party was holding out despite economic hardship.
After being initially taken by surprise, the government responded with its biggest crackdown in decades, sending military units to crush the protests. More than 1,300 protesters have been detained, according to human rights group Cubalex and Justice J11, an umbrella organization of Cuban civil society groups that monitors the aftermath of the summer unrest.
The Cuban government has not responded to requests for comment sent through the foreign media agency.
The magnitude of the government’s response shocked longtime opposition members and Cuban observers.
Cuba’s leaders had always responded quickly to any public discontent by locking up protesters and harassing dissidents. But previous repressions have mostly targeted the relatively small groups of political activists.
By contrast, the mass trials that began in December have targeted, for the first time in decades, people largely disconnected from politics before leaving their homes to join the mob calling for change, historians and activists say.
“This is something completely new,” said Martha Beatriz Roque, a prominent Cuban dissident who was 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 what makes the difference” to the past, she said by phone from her home in Havana.
Yosvany García, a 33-year-old welder, had never taken part in protests or had trouble with the law, his wife, Mailin Rodríguez, said. On July 11, he came home for lunch as usual from his workshop in the provincial capital of Holguín.
But when he returned to work, he encountered a mob demanding political change, Ms. Rodríguez said. Driven by a wave of outrage over the excruciating cost of living, Mr. García joined the march, she said.
He was beaten by the police, who broke up the demonstration later that day, but returned home to his wife that evening. Four days later, he was cornered by police near his home and taken to prison.
On Wednesday, Mr García was charged with sedition along with 20 other protesters, including five teenagers aged 17 and 16, the minimum age for criminal responsibility in Cuba. All face sentences of at least five years in prison; Mr García faces a 30-year prison sentence.
Rowland Castillo was 17 years old in July when he was detained for participating in the protest in a working-class neighborhood of the capital Havana. According to his mother, Yudinela Castro, he was the provincial champion of wrestling, one of Cuba’s most popular sports. He attended a state sports academy and had never taken part in any political activity.
She said she didn’t realize he had joined the protest until police arrested him a few days later. Prosecutors are seeking a 23-year prison term for sedition.
Ms. Castro said she was fired from the state food market where she worked after her son’s arrest. She now lives on donations from neighbors and benefactors at an abandoned community first aid clinic with her 2-year-old grandson – Mr. Castillo’s son – as she tries to recover from cancer.
“He made me realize what evil is happening in this country,” she said, referring to her imprisoned son. “He did nothing except go out and ask for freedom.”
Initially, the arrival of Mr. Díaz-Canel, 61, as president in 2018 raised hopes of gradual change in some quarters.
He was not part of the old guard that came to power with the Castros. During his tenure, he sought to streamline Cuba’s intricate currency system and implemented reforms to expand the private sector in an attempt to mitigate a crippling economic crisis brought on by the pandemic, sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and dwindling aid from its socialist ally. of the island, Venezuela.
But Díaz-Canel, born after the revolution, could not summon the anti-imperialist struggles of the Castro brothers to put the declining standard of living on paper. When the protests broke out, he responded with violence.
“They have no intention of changing,” said Salomé García, an activist with Justice J11, the rights group, “to allow Cuban society any participation in determining its destiny.”