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Cuba: Covid-19 Rules Used to Intensify Repression

Critics Imprisoned, Fined, Harassed

Artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Anamelys Ramos present a habeas corpus regarding detained musician Denis Solís, in Havana, on November 10, 2020. Otero Alcántara and Ramos were arrested on November 26. © 2020 Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara

(Washington, DC) – The Cuban government is using regulations designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 to harass and imprison critics, Human Rights Watch said today.

On November 26, 2020, Cuban security forces detained 14 government critics in Havana after alleging that one of them had violated Covid-19 rules by failing to re-take a test for the coronavirus. The detentions follow a series of cases in which security officers and prosecutors have targeted dissidents, arresting or charging them with “spreading an epidemic,” and imposing fines for alleged violations of Covid-19-related restrictions. Using Covid-19 enforcement restrictions as a pretext, authorities have engaged in arbitrary arrests, abusive prosecutions, and detention in unsanitary and overcrowded cells conducive to the spread of Covid-19.

“Cuban authorities are using Covid-19 rules to expand their repressive tool kit against critics,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “This is part of a broader pattern in which Cuban authorities use any excuse to systematically repress dissent.”

Between July and November, Human Rights Watch interviewed 35 people in Cuba by telephone, including victims, their relatives, and lawyers. Human Rights Watch also reviewed judicial rulings, media reports, and records of fines levied against dissidents or people the authorities appear to have perceived as critics, and corroborated videos posted on social media.

Human Rights Watch documented cases involving 34 victims in which authorities invoked rules concerning the Covid-19 pandemic to target government critics and others. Of 20 arrested, 3 were arbitrarily prosecuted, 3 others were fined, and 14 more were threatened with prosecution for “spreading an epidemic.” Eight who were not arrested were fined under Covid-19 rules in ways that appeared arbitrary, and two others were threatened with prosecution.

Thirty of the people targeted were detained, harassed, fined, or threatened with criminal prosecution for violating rules concerning Covid-19; these included nine who were accused of not wearing a face mask properly. Two others were threatened with prosecution for “spreading an epidemic” for publishing information regarding Covid-19. In two other cases, officials invoked norms connected to the pandemic, though they did not point to a specific violation under Cuban law. One dissident, for example, was fined for not reporting that a friend was not wearing a face mask properly.

All detainees were denied an opportunity to make a phone call. Some were beaten, and some lacked legal representation during criminal proceedings.

Most of the 11 people fined denied violating the rules. In some cases, officers responded by threatening to prosecute them for contempt. Some government critics said they were never told what they were accused of.

The crime of “spreading an epidemic” is punishable with up to nine months in prison, as well as fines. It is defined in the criminal code broadly as “violat[ing] the measures or provisions established by the competent health authorities to prevent and control communicable diseases and the programs or campaigns for the control or eradication of… serious or dangerous epidemics.”

Cuban authorities have also passed specific legislation regarding the pandemic. In May, the government passed a resolution requiring people to wear a face mask when outside of their homes. An August decree, applicable only to the Havana province, establishes fines of 2,000 Cuban pesos (US$77) – roughly twice the average monthly salary – for people who, among other transgressions, hold parties, fail to use a face mask properly, or “impede in any way the fulfillment of sanitary measures.” The fines are to be doubled if not paid within 10 days. Under the Cuban criminal code, people who fail to pay fines can also be sentenced to up to six months in prison.

On April 12, police arrested Keilylli de la Mora Valle, of the opposition group Patriotic Union of Cuba, as she smoked a cigarette on a street in the city of Cienfuegos, contending that she was not wearing her face mask properly. At the police station, de la Mora Valle began to strip off her clothes in protest. An officer grabbed her by the neck, took her into a cell, and kicked her repeatedly in the thigh and knee.

After a May 7 trial in which she did not have legal representation, she was sentenced to a year and a half in prison for “contempt,” “resistance,” “disobedience,” and “spreading an epidemic.” She remains in prison. A relative of hers told Human Rights Watch that she has tried to kill herself twice in reaction to threats and harassment by guards.

Under international law, certain basic human rights cannot be restricted even in times of emergency. These include the prohibition on ill-treatment, the fundamental principles of a fair trial and freedom from arbitrary detention, the right to judicial review of detention, and freedom of thought. Restrictions on other rights, such as freedom of expression and association, due to a serious public health emergency may only be justified when they have a legal basis, are strictly necessary and proportionate to the public health aim, of limited duration, subject to review, and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application. The Cuban government also has an obligation to take effective steps to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and protect people’s right to the highest attainable standard of health.

For a selection of cases documented by Human Rights Watch, please see below.

Arbitrary Detention of Keilylli de la Mora Valle

Keilylli de la Mora Valle, of the pro-democracy groups Patriotic Union of Cuba and Cuba Decide, was arrested on April 12, a family member told Human Rights Watch, when she pulled her face mask down to smoke a cigarette as she walked home from a relative’s house.

At the police station, an officer shoved her and, in protest for her arrest and treatment, she walked to another part of the station and began taking off her clothes, de la Mora Valle said in a video posted on Facebook. A male officer then grabbed her by the neck, put her in a cell, and kicked her on the knee and leg. Images of bruises, posted on Facebook, are consistent with her account.

Officers left her naked and handcuffed, she said, and later took her to a hospital, where a doctor reported no injuries.

De la Mora Valle spent the night at a second police station, in a cell with a woman who was constantly coughing, she said. She was released the next day.

On April 16, a police officer told her by phone that she had to go the police station. There, officers told her she was being accused of “contempt,” “resistance,” “disobedience,” and “spreading an epidemic,” she said. On May 5, an officer appeared at her house with a document announcing her trial on May 7.

De la Mora Valle was not represented by a lawyer during the trial. She was tried through an expedited procedure, known as a “summary” in Cuba, in which defendants can be tried without legal representation. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

She appealed, denying the charges and protesting the severity of the sentence. On May 27, an appeals court issued a two-page ruling, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, rejecting her arguments. Smoking was “not an excuse” for inappropriate face mask usage, the court ruled, and by taking off her clothes, De la Mora Valle showed lack of “respect and modesty.” She deserved a prison sentence, the court ruled, because failing to wear a face mask properly could have “lethal consequences” for others.

De la Mora Valle presented herself on June 4 to serve the sentence. She remains in prison. A relative said he had not been able to visit her because of Covid-19 restrictions, but in phone calls he had learned that in both June and October she had tried to kill herself. She faced “threats and lots of pressure” from prison guards, he said.

Arbitrary Detention of Juan Miguel Pupo Arias

Juan Miguel Pupo Arias, 47, of the Movement of Opponents for a New Republic, has, since 1994, been convicted of multiple crimes. In 2015, then-President Raúl Castro pardoned him, and about 800 others, when Pope Francis visited Cuba.

On April 8, Pupo Arias had just finished eating on a street in the city of San José de las Lajas and was smoking a cigarette, his wife said. An officer approached, telling him to pull up his facemask properly. A carload of other officers arrived and pushed Pupo Arias into the car, saying they were charging him with “spreading an epidemic.”

Pupo Arias was held at a police station until April 10, his wife said, when he stood trial without a lawyer and was sentenced to six months in prison.

His wife, the only person allowed at the trial, said that he was convicted of “spreading an epidemic.” She and Pupo Arias’ son said they were not given a copy of the ruling. But a brief Human Rights Watch reviewed from a prosecutor on a separate case, seemingly referring to the Pupo Arias case, suggests he was convicted for “contempt” instead. The brief mentions unspecified “offenses” against “a public order official who was carrying out his daily duties on the street, relating to the epidemiological situation of Covid-19.”

On June 29, a prosecutor sought to have Pupo Arias tried for new “contempt” and “assault” charges related to an alleged argument between Pupo Arias and prison guards who refused him permission to smoke. The prosecutor’s brief says Pupo Arias, who “talks negatively about the revolutionary process,” tried unsuccessfully to kick a guard.

On September 30 – a few days before Pupo Arias completed his April sentence – a court in San José de las Lajas convicted him of contempt and assault on authorities. Two officers testified that he had “discredited their public image,” calling them “losers,” the ruling indicates, and that he had tried unsuccessfully to kick one of them. Two detainees testified that Pupo Arias did neither, the ruling notes. He was sentenced to four years in prison and remains incarcerated.

Arbitrary Detention of Mileidy and Daniel Salcedo

On April 23, around 3 p.m., Mileidy Salcedo, 24, and her friend María (pseudonym), 20, were walking in Havana when a police officer approached. María had her face mask down because she was drinking a beer.

The officer told another officer to put Maria in a nearby police car and “take her to the station,” Salcedo said.

A police car soon pulled up, and Salcedo began using her phone to video-record. An officer pushed her to the ground and kicked her, Salcedo said, and she kicked the officer back. Salcedo’s video, reviewed by Human Rights Watch, corroborates her being shoved to the ground. The officers drove off with María, leaving Salcedo lying in the street.

Salcedo walked to the nearby police station to complain and to check on María, and an officer arrested her, charging her with “assault,” Salcedo said. Two officers interrogated her for roughly 10 minutes about María’s arrest and Salcedo’s tussle with the police officer.

After holding her for two days and denying requests for a phone call, officers took Salcedo to a prison in Havana. She spent eight days incommunicado, during which an officer once woke her at 2 a.m. for a repeat interrogation. On May 1, she was allowed to make a phone call. On June 26, authorities fined her 500 Cuban pesos (roughly US$19) and released her. She was not told what the fine was for, she said.

Salcedo’s father, Daniel Salcedo, 52, had gone twice to the police station looking for her, a habeas corpus petition reviewed by Human Rights Watch says. Officers denied she was being held there and told him he had no rights. “You are worms,” he recalls an officer saying, using a common expression for government critics in Cuba, “and I won’t talk to you.”

Daniel Salcedo had never been a government critic, he told Human Rights Watch, but after his daughter was detained, he had contacted Berta Soler, of Women in White, a nongovernmental group founded by relatives of political prisoners. Police took him in twice – once in late May and once in early June – for questioning about his links to Soler.

After Mileidy Salcedo was released, an officer went to their house on August 22 without an arrest or search warrant, Daniel Salcedo said, and requested his ID. The officer accused him of hosting a party, which is forbidden by Covid-19 rules.

The officer refused his invitation to check, saying he had to go to the police station. Two more officers, and two men in civilian clothes, appeared, and Mileidy Salcedo began recording.

The police shoved her, saying they did not want to be filmed. Daniel Salcedo shouted “Down with Raúl! Down with communism!” Police put him in a car, and his daughter joined him.

At the station, an officer grabbed Salcedo by the neck and pressed him against a wall. Another hit him on the back and arms. They charged him with “contempt” and “spreading an epidemic.” They detained Mileidy Salcedo too, releasing her the next day.

For three days, Daniel Salcedo shared a five-bed cell with 13 other detainees. The cement beds had no mattresses. His daughter was denied permission to visit and bring him clothes.

He was then transferred to a prison, he said, and held in a crowded cell with 20 others. Officers routinely swore at him, accused him of being a “counter-revolutionary” and threatened to let police dogs attack him, he said. Food was “minimal and rotten,” sometimes infested with bugs, mosquitos, or cockroaches. Officers repeatedly asked him to sign an acknowledgment of responsibility for the crimes, but he refused.

He held a hunger strike, during which a doctor checked him periodically. He ended the strike on the tenth day, when authorities reported a case of Covid-19 in the prison. During the medical checks, a doctor told him there were no medicines in the prison.

After 17 days in prison, he was allowed to see his lawyer for the first time for only 10 minutes before the start of his trial. The court imposed a 1,200 Cuban peso (roughly US$47) fine for “contempt,” but acquitted him of “spreading an epidemic.”

The fine is roughly four times his monthly income. He has not received a copy of the ruling, Salcedo and his lawyer said, and they do not know why he was charged with “contempt.”

Arbitrary Arrests of San Isidro Movement Members, Other Government Critics

On November 26, Cuban police officers detained 14 government critics gathered at the home of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a dissident performance artist.

The critics, many of whom belonged to a coalition of artists known as the San Isidro Movement, had been gathering there since November 16 to organize protests. They called for the release of Denis Solís, a musician sentenced to eight months in prison for “contempt.” On November 17, after police patrols cordoned off the street, the dissidents – who feared arrest if they went outside – announced on social media that they would “quarter” in the house. The next day, several reported that they had begun a hunger strike. Some did not drink water for several days.

On November 26, around 7 p.m., three men in white medical coats, who claimed to be from the Health Ministry, arrived at the house, a video recorded by one of the dissidents shows. The men told one of the critics, the writer and journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez, that he had to re-take a Covid-19 test. Álvarez, who had arrived in Cuba on November 24 from the United States, later told Human Rights Watch that he was quarantining in the house with the protesters, although it is not clear that this was in line with quarantine regulations.

The officials said the Covid-19 test Álvarez took at the Havana airport had an “inhibitory” result, meaning that the lab was not able to obtain a conclusive result. They also said he had broken the rules by quarantining at an address different from the one he had reported. Álvarez feared they would not let him back into the house if he left to take a second test, so he refused to leave and asked to be tested there. The men said they would file a criminal complaint, the video shows, and they left.

About 10 minutes later, police officers forced the front door open, arresting all 14 dissidents and taking their phones, three of them said. Officers told the dissidents that a criminal complaint had been filed against them for “spreading an epidemic.”

Several journalists and other people in Cuba said that Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube stopped working in large parts of Cuba around 7 p.m. that day, the time the dissidents were arrested. The apparent restrictions lasted for an hour and a half, they said.

The officers loaded the detainees into several police vans and drove them to a nearby station, three of them said, leaving the detainees inside the vans for two hours. Eight detainees, including Álvarez, were packed into one van with little ventilation, two of them said. A police officer would open the door from time to time to let air in.

Three officers took Álvarez for Covid-19 testing, he said, although he told the officers he did not consent to the test. He did not resist, he said.

Most of the other detainees were not tested. Officers took most of them to their homes that night, returning most of their phones, but in many cases with the data erased. Police patrols stayed parked in front of the critics’ homes the next day, several said.

The officers took Otero Alcántara to the home of friends and relatives, but he refused to stay, insisting on being allowed to go to his own home, he told Human Rights Watch. Instead, the officers took Otero Alcántara to a police station, holding him for the night, Otero Alcántara said. The next morning, officers put Otero Alcántara in a private car, asking him to look down. They drove him to a private house, where a doctor tested him for Covid-19 and told him he was dehydrated. He tested negative, Otero Alcántara told Human Rights Watch.

Later, the officials took Otero Alcántara to a hospital, although he had not asked to be hospitalized. “You cannot refuse, you have to do what we say,” an official told Otero Alcántara. He was only allowed make a call at around 8 p.m.

Otero Alcántara remained in detention while hospitalized, he told Human Rights Watch, in a two-by-three-meter room with three security officers always in the room with him, even when he used the toilet or received visits. He was not allowed to leave, had no access to a phone, and was only allowed two visits.

In his first day in the hospital, a psychiatrist and a psychologist tried to convince him to end his hunger strike, he said. Security officials also told him they would connect him to an intravenous drip if he refused to eat. The next day, Otero Alcántara decided to end the hunger strike, fearing officials would use the strike as an excuse to keep him hospitalized.

On December 1, around 3 p.m., doctors told him he could leave the hospital. Security officers took him to a police station, where they interrogated him for three hours, he said. The officers threatened him with criminal prosecution, he said. Around 6:30 p.m., they set him free.

Otero Alcántara spent the night at a friend’s house. When he left the house the next morning, officers approached him saying he could not leave, Otero Alcántara said. He refused. They handcuffed him, put him in a police car, and drove him to his mother’s house.

His mother was not there, so they took him to his grandmother’s house. Later that day, Otero Alcántara said a police patrol was parked outside of the house and officers told him he could not leave. Other members of the San Isidro movement were facing similar restrictions, he said.

Threats, Arbitrary Fines Against Raux Denis Rodríguez Rodríguez

On April 23, in the city of Santa Clara, an officer appeared at the home of Raux Denis Rodríguez Rodríguez, 24, a member of various opposition civic groups, and fined him 3,000 Cuban pesos (roughly US$115) for breach of Decree 370, a 2019 law forbidding the dissemination of information “contrary to the social interest.” The officer cited a Facebook post in which Rodríguez said the government was “hiding Covid cases.” The officer said the post “affected the social and economic development of the country,” Rodríguez said.

On September 5, two officers approached Rodríguez and a friend at a Santa Clara park and said they would be fined for failing to wear their face masks properly. Rodríguez’s friend was wearing his correctly, Rodríguez said, but its elastic was torn and the facemask often fell. Rodríguez, who was wearing the facemask correctly, asked why he was being fined.

One officer said Rodríguez had a “duty” to “report” his friend or demand that he wear the mask correctly. The other officer said Rodríguez “had a big mouth,” Rodríguez said. “We should hit him with our batons two or three times,” the officer said.

Rodríguez repeated that he was only asking the reason for the fine. The officers demanded his ID and arrested him and his friend. Rodríguez did not resist arrest, he said, but shouted “down with the communist regime in Cuba!” several times. A video posted on social media corroborates his account.

The officers took Rodríguez and his friend to a police station, where an officer said they would be charged with “contempt in times of Covid-19.” The officer warned that the sentence for contempt could be increased, during the pandemic. Nothing in Cuban law appears to provide for such an increase, and Rodríguez said he felt the officer was trying to intimidate him.

Rodríguez’s friend was fined 100 Cuban pesos (roughly US$4) and let go that day. Rodríguez was held for two days, not allowed to call anyone, fined 200 Cuban pesos, and let go.

Arbitrary Detention, Fines Against Maykel Castillo Pérez

On April 15, around 6 p.m., a police officer appeared at the Havana home of 38-year-old Maykel Castillo Pérez, a member of the San Isidro Movement. The officer wanted to take him to the station but would not say why, Castillo Pérez said, and he refused. Minutes later, four more officers arrived, insisting that he go with them to the station, and Castillo Pérez acquiesced.

There they put him in a small room, with 28 people, Castillo Pérez said. He told the officers he did not want to be there because of the Covid-19 risk – and he tried to leave.

Seven or eight officers beat him with their fists on his back, chest, and legs. One grabbed his right thumb and pressed it back, fracturing it, Castillo Pérez said. The officers then placed him in another room.

They told him he had “violated measures” against Covid-19 and published “lies” on social media about related deaths. He had, days earlier, posted on Facebook that a woman had died on the street from Covid-19, he said. He had learned from people close to the woman – and reported in his post – that a hospital had refused to provide her with medical care.

Officers refused Castillo Pérez’s request to make a phone call, he said, and he spent the night on a concrete bed without a mattress. He was given no food or water during his 24 hours at the station.

The next day, an officer said he had “violated the Facebook rules” and fined him 3,000 Cuban pesos (roughly US$115), under Decree 370.

Transferred to a prison, Castillo Pérez was also charged with “contempt” and “spreading an epidemic.” Officers read to him from a file that included a report by Cuban intelligence agencies, and showed him a folder with some of his recent Facebook posts, highlighting his post on the woman who had died on the street, as well as a description of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel as a “thief.”

During his two days in prison, Castillo Pérez was allowed no phone calls. He was freed on the third day, after an officer told him to stop meeting with government critics and “offending the leaders of the revolution.” Castillo Pérez said he changed his Facebook settings to hide the post after his release.

Castillo Pérez has since been arbitrarily arrested several times, including the November 26 arrest of the 14 government critics.

Harrasment of Yordanis Labrada Tellez

On September 3, a neighbor in the town of Songo-La Maya, in Santiago de Cuba, gave Yordanis Labrada Tellez a document that the police had left, summoning him to the station the next day at 9 a.m. Labrada, 44, is a coordinator for the Songo-La Maya branch of the Patriotic Union of Cuba.

At the station, the police chief gave Labrada a notice regarding crimes for which he could be “going to prison any time,” Labrada said. He refused to sign the notice, he said, and officers did not give him a copy.

The chief accused Labrada of “spreading an epidemic,” by having visitors. But Labrada said that people only came to his house to deliver complaints against the government, as it is the Songo-La Maya office of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, though the government considers the organization illegal.

The chief gave Labrada 15 days to find a job or be charged with “dangerousness.” Under Cuban law, people who engage in conduct that contradicts “norms of socialist morality” can be charged with “dangerousness” and detained or supervised by security forces.

On October 29, Labrada was tried, without a lawyer, on charges unrelated to the September 3 summons, said his wife, who was the only one allowed to attend. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison, she said, for failing to pay fines imposed in August and September for placing Patriotic Union of Cuba signs in the streets and a photo of José Daniel Ferrer, the group’s leader, on the door of his house.

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