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Cuba: Protest Over Police Killing Suppressed

Covid-19 No Excuse for Arbitrary Detention, Communication Restrictions

A man is detained at the site where a protest against the killing of a Black man by police was due to take place in Havana, Cuba, June 30, 2020. © 2020 Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters.

(Washington, DC) – Cuban authorities committed numerous rights violations in June 2020 against people organizing a protest over police violence, effectively suppressing the demonstration, Human Rights Watch said today.

Many Cubans planned to gather in Havana and other parts of Cuba on June 30 to protest the June 24 killing by police officers of 27-year-old Hansel Ernesto Hernández Galiano in Havana. Cuban authorities said that policemen found Hernández Galiano stealing and shot him as he was fleeing and throwing stones at the police. Ahead of the planned protest, Cuban authorities harassed and detained scores of people, and accused some of the crime of “spreading an epidemic.” Some dissidents reported that their cellphone data and phone service were interrupted beginning on the morning of June 30, in what appeared to be targeted restrictions. The protest was effectively suppressed and did not take place.

“Arbitrarily detaining people to prevent them from demonstrating peacefully shows what the Cuban government is willing to do to stop critical voices from being heard,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “This is part of a broader pattern in which Cuban authorities will find any excuse – in this case, the pandemic – to treat dissent as a crime, instead of establishing ways to allow peaceful protests to occur safely.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 people in Cuba by telephone, including victims of abuse and harassment, journalists, and local human rights defenders. Human Rights Watch also reviewed and corroborated videos posted on social media, publications by local human rights groups, and media reports.

June 30, when the protest was scheduled to take place, was one of the last days of a lockdown, which included strict legal restrictions on going outdoors, to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 in Havana. But some arrests in connection with the protests occurred in other parts of the country that were not under lockdown, such as Santiago de Cuba, victims said.

On June 29 and the morning of June 30, Cuban police officers ordered people who were planning to attend not to join the protests. In some cases, the officers appeared at their homes ordering them to stay there, they said. In other cases, people said they received anonymous phone calls ordering them not to join. Cuban rights groups reported that at least 84 people were forced to stay in their houses or harassed in other ways by police forces on June 30.

Eleven people said that their cellphone data and internet service was interrupted the morning of the planned protest and the following day. In other cases, landline phone services were restricted. People calling these individuals heard a message indicating that “The number you are calling is temporarily restricted from incoming calls,” news media reported. Several affected people told Human Rights Watch and the media that they had faced similar restrictions on internet access ahead of prior protests. When they face such restrictions, protesters borrow phones from friends and relatives who are not critical of the government and whose service has not been interrupted, they told Human Rights Watch.

Police officers arrested many people as they headed to the protest sites and detained them for several hours. Police forces arrested 52 people in connection with the planned protest, according to Cuban human rights groups.

Tania Bruguera, an artist, told Human Rights Watch that police officers showed up at her house in Havana on June 29 and ordered her not to go to the protest. As she left her house the next morning, officers detained her and drove her to a police station. They did not say why she was being detained. As she entered the police station, she heard an officer say, “Do not do anything to this one,” Bruguera said.

Hours later, a lieutenant colonel interrogated her about her role in the planned protest. The officer commented about personal details of Bruguera’s life, including the death of her mother and her family composition, she said. Around 2 p.m. an officer asked her to sign a document indicating that she had been detained for “disturbance to the public order.” Bruguera said she refused. She was released around 4 p.m.

Three men wearing civilian clothes stood for hours next to the home of Oscar Casanella in Havana on June 29, he told Human Rights Watch. When he left his house on June 30, the same men approached him and told him that he “already knew” he could not leave. Casanella was recording the interaction with his phone. He refused to go back inside and asked them if they were police officers. The men did not respond. Instead, they took his phone, arrested Casanella, and drove him – in a police car with two police and two army officers – to a nearby police station.

They refused to allow him to make a phone call and held him incommunicado from around 11:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., when they released him, Casanella said. While he was there, a lieutenant colonel interrogated him, telling him to accept charges for “spreading an epidemic” and participating in a “public scandal.” When Casanella refused, he said, she threatened him with criminal proceedings and a long prison sentence. Casanella’s cellphone data did not work for most of July 1, he said.

Juan Osorio (pseudonym) said that the morning of June 30, four policemen showed up at his home in Havana. They told him that if he left, he would be arrested. “I could not even take the garbage out or walk my dogs,” Osorio said. Two officers stood by his doorstep the entire day, while two others waited in an official car nearby, he said. Osorio and his wife said that their cellphone data did not work that day until about 5 p.m.

Police officers arrested Luis Manuel Otero, also an artist, on June 30 in Havana as he was heading to the protest. They held him in a police station from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Otero said, not telling him why he was being detained. His cellphone data did not work from 9 a.m. that morning until the next day, he said. Otero is facing separate criminal charges for “desecration of patriotic symbols” for his use of the Cuban flag in the performance piece Drapeau, in which he wore the Cuban flag or carried it around with him 24 hours a day for a month.

Access to the internet is severely limited in Cuba. Internet is very expensive, making its cost prohibitive for many Cubans. Telecommunication services are exclusively offered by the state-owned Telecommunications Company of Cuba S.A. (ETECSA) and are controlled by the Cuban government, which exercises its ability and legal mandate to restrict connectivity in ways that are inconsistent with international human rights norms.

In its 2020 report on Cuba, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported that the authorities engaged in “repeated arbitrary arrests as a method of harassment by the police and State security agents.” In the Commission’s view, these arrests “are intended to discourage the expression of views critical of the government, hinder the free expression of opinions and ideas,” as well as to “impede the work of defense and promotion of fundamental rights.” The Commission also reported that access to internet in the island is “severely obstructed” including by “limited connectivity of the Cuban population,” “blocking and censorship,” as well as “on-line surveillance.”

Under international human rights law, governments are obligated to respect and protect individuals’ rights to freedom of expression and association, including through peaceful protests. Any restrictions on such rights, including in the context of Covid-19, must be necessary and proportionate to the achievement of a legitimate aim, such as protecting public health. Governments also have an obligation to ensure that any restrictions on access to information online are provided by law and are necessary and proportionate.

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