Cuban rights defenders pin hopes on Human Rights Council to revive awareness

Police detain an anti-government demonstrator during a protest in Havana, Cuba, 11 July 2021. Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in several cities in Cuba to protest against ongoing food shortages and high prices of foodstuffs, amid the new coronavirus crisis. (Keystone/AP /Ramón Espinosa)

Two years after sporadic protests in Cuba led to a new wave of repression and migration, rights groups are hoping that an upcoming round of discussions in Geneva will pressure the government into aligning with universal rights.

As western Cuba began to recover from Hurricane Idalia, which left hundreds of thousands without electricity and many unable to return to their flooded homes on Wednesday, it was a reminder of events two years ago, when widespread frustrations with a system that left people without sufficient food, water, and medicines, led to unprecedented nationwide protests.

Meanwhile, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, rights defenders invited country delegations to a pre-session ahead of the start of Cuba’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in November – a state-led evaluation of countries’ human rights records–  to build awareness of the worsening rights situation in the island nation.

“None of us are here because we wanted to,” Kirenia Yalit Nuñez Pérez, director and co-founder of the Cuban Youth Dialogue Table told Geneva Solutions at an event organised later in the day. She said she and her partner had to leave Cuba last year after years of psychological and physical violence as a result of the group’s activities. “We try to save ourselves however we can,” she said.

She referred to herself as “a tool, a vehicle or a resource allowing mothers, fathers and young people to express themselves” in Cuba as they build leadership in an effort to transform their lives. “I am not the one that counts. It is them,” she said.

With many Cuban rights defenders behind bars or unable to be granted permission to travel, those back home were eager for member states of the United Nations Human Rights Council to recognise rights realities in Cuba ahead of the country’s review.

Marthadela Tamayo González, a member of the Racial Integration Committee (CIR), told Geneva Solutions by phone from the Cuban capital, Havana, that after protests that began spontaneously on 11 July 2021 and the subsequent arrest of around 1,500 people, including 681 who remain in detention, official crackdown measures have severely affected advocacy efforts by Cuban rights groups.

She said that protesters in captivity for having defied the authoritarian state “took to the streets to demand not only basic necessities such as food but also to demand system change in the political and electoral system”.

As a result, she said, the state has expanded its list of people it classifies as “regulados” or regulated, including rights defenders, activists and independent journalists, who are barred from attending international events like the ones held this week in Geneva.

“For the past five years, we have been prisoners on our own island,” she said.

A legal clampdown on sharing critical social media posts and media reporting has fueled an atmosphere of fear in Cuba despite what Tamayo González says has been a sharp rise in criticism by citizens.

Rights at stake

In addition to official repression, a collapse of the economy and basic services, including healthcare, electricity and access to drinking water, made worse during the Covid-19 pandemic, have intensified hardships for Cubans who have fled the island in record numbers in recent years, often through dangerous sea or land routes. In 2022, more than 300,000 Cubans left the island.

Nastassja Rojas Silva, executive director of the Food Monitor Program, a Bogota-based research group, described to diplomats the country’s food security situation as “worrisome” due to deficiencies in the food system that were exacerbated by the pandemic and inflation, which has exceeded 70 per cent. She said the official regulation of food distribution “does not guarantee adequate food”, adding that a survey showed that most people spend 80 to 100 per cent of their income on food.

She urged countries “not to have a reductionist view of the food crisis in Cuba and believe that it is due to international sanctions”.

Other civil society groups addressed the distressful situation. The Observatorio de Envejecimiento, Cuidados y Derechos spoke of the high poverty rates and vulnerabilities among elderly people, whose rights it monitors, amid the deterioration of their basic rights while the Observatorio de Libertad Académica stressed that academics are regularly threatened and expelled from institutions where academic autonomy is outlawed.

Laritza Diversent, executive director of Cubalex, said that in addition to arbitrary detentions that have continued till now, prolonged isolation, incommunicado detention, torture and cruel treatment have also been reported. She said 82 people have been forced into exile in an effort to disband civil society groups, while 910 people who had been detained following protests that began in July 2021 have fled the country after being freed. Nearly 280 protest events, she said, took place in 2022 and in the year to date.

Alessandra Pinna, Latin America programme director at Freedom House, told Geneva Solutions that for civil society groups such as these, the Council’s UPR provides arguably the best shot at exerting international pressure on Havana to recognise human rights.

“This UN institution is the most important space to talk about human rights, to seek a mechanism to present the truth and to seek justice,” she said. Freedom House and the Cuban Youth Dialogue Table co-hosted the screening of a documentary and photo exhibit on street artists documenting the experiences of political prisoners and their families.

In the Washington-based organisation’s latest report on political rights and civil liberties worldwide, Cuba scored 12 out of a top rating of 100.

Hurdles in advocacy

Kirenia Yalit Nuñez Pérez, director and co-founder of the Cuban Youth Dialogue Table, at an event in Geneva presenting art by young artists in Cuba informing of political prisoners detained following the 2021 nationwide protests, 30 August 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

But for many of the rights defenders who were at the Palais, the absence of questions and comments from state delegations during the public meeting, as well as their marked absence at the side event later in the day, was telling of the challenges they faced in Geneva.

Erik Jennische, director of the Latin American department of Civil Rights Defenders, an organisation based in Stockholm that works with rights activists globally, confirmed that aside from the Cuban government’s ban on activists to travel abroad, the international community’s interest in what rights defenders have to say has been “very limited”.

He said building relations with foreign governments on their home turf has been restricted to invitations from United States and European embassies in Havana. “They never go to Latin American embassies because they have never been invited,” Jennische told Geneva Solutions following the event on Cuba.

In contrast, he said Cuban embassies would send delegations to international events, for example at the UN in New York or at the European Parliament, where Cuban defenders were invited, to shout and intimidate them, while accusing them of being US spies.

As a result, he said, staff from Western rights groups had been instructed to closely monitor and react to any presence of anyone who may disrupt the pre-session.

Yalit Nuñez Pérez, who said that she had herself experienced intimidation from a Cuban official during an earlier visit to the Human Rights Council, said the government has long invested in building a global diplomatic presence. “You have to wonder why a country of 11 million has more embassies than any developed country,” she said, adding that many countries have found common ground with the communist state over its said prioritisation of economic rights.

Meanwhile, Pinna explained, Havana would send organisations to Council sessions, which it describes as civil society groups “very much tied to the Communist Party or Cuban government” to defend its record.

Cuba’s permanent mission to the UN in Geneva did not respond to a request to comment by the time of publication. In 2018, at the end Cuba’s last UPR, authorities declared that “Cuba expresses its acceptance of the vast majority of the recommendations, either because it agrees with their intent and is determined to put them in practice or because they are already being implemented”. 

Recommendations it accepted from other states included requests regarding freedom of thought, expression and assembly and freedom of religion.

“Cuba knows how the UN works, and they can play the game very well,” Pinna said, noting that Cuba has been very active at the Council, rarely supporting resolutions in response to serious human rights violations. 

The country is currently one of the 47 elected Council members, with its current term ending in December. It is running  for a second term at the end of the year, when a third of the members are set to be renewed. 

With authoritarian regimes increasingly vying for seats and influence on the Council,  Jennische said that it was all the more important that democratic governments vote at the UN General Assembly to elect other democracies to the Council. “It is impossible to understand, when the vote is secret, why democratic governments will vote for non-democracies,” she said.

“We are not going to let the Cuban government and their allies fill the spaces with hatred, threats, violence and lies like they have done in the past and like they will continue to do in the future,” he said. 

He recommended that two rights defenders be present during all international discussions about Cuba. “If there are no Cuban rights defenders in those spaces, the decisions will be made by states which do not have the Cuban people in their sights,” he said.