Héctor Luis Valdés Cocho was walking through the streets of Havana on Sunday, documenting the masses of Cubans protesting their government, when a police officer pushed him to the ground and grabbed him by his feet.
The 30-year-old journalist and a group of young demonstrators were detained for about 22 hours, he said. He said he was interrogated, threatened and accused of inciting protests against the government. In the days since, he has been a prisoner in his own home, he said, with police officers standing watch outside his apartment. An Internet blackout enacted by the government after the historic protests on Sunday left much of the island disconnected, making it difficult for activists to track or publicize the extent of the security crackdown. As access began to return on Wednesday, images and videos circulated on social media that purported to show police officers breaking into Cubans’ homes and arresting suspected protesters. The lawyers’ group Cubalex estimates that 200 or more people have been detained or are missing
Raisa Emilia González Cantillo was still waiting for the release of her son. Anyelo Troya, an artist and photographer who helped film part of a music video for “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”), a rallying cry for the protesters, has been detained since participating in the demonstrations on Sunday. “It has destroyed me,” González said Wednesday. “We don’t even have Internet to tell the world what’s happening.”
The protests in cities across Cuba on Sunday were remarkable not only for their size, but for the range of participants: People and families of all ages and backgrounds, including many who said they had never taken part in such a demonstration. But activists and journalists well known within the dissident community fear they will suffer the brunt of the authoritarian government’s response.
“The wave of repression will come for us,” Valdés said.
One video that circulated on social media purported to show police allegedly shooting a man in front of his wife and children. The Washington Post has not independently verified the authenticity of the videos. “Now the repression is being seen not only in the protests, but in the homes,” said Anamely Ramos González, a member of the San Isidro Movement. “They’re hunting down people in their homes.” On Tuesday, Cuba’s interior ministry confirmed one death in the protest, but Ramos González thinks the real number is much higher. “The Internet blockages are so intense that we haven’t even been able to confirm the deaths, but we know that there are deaths.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the Internet outages and the detention of activists and journalists.
“We know the world is watching as Cuban authorities arrest and beat dozens of their own citizens, and that includes journalists and independent voices,” he told reporters Wednesday. “We know that many remain missing. “We join their families, Cuban human rights defenders and people around the world in calling for the immediate release of those detained or missing for merely demanding freedom by exercising what is a universal right to free assembly and free expression.” Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel has accused the United States and other outsiders of inciting the unrest. He called the accusations of government repression of peaceful demonstrations “a total lie and a total slander.”
“Those who are demonstrating are not demonstrating peacefully. They are motivated by the hatred that has been instilled in them by the strategy of subversion so outrageously mounted, so perverse, so maliciously promoted on social networks,” Díaz-Canel said, according to Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party. “This is media terrorism … and we will be denouncing those who have joined these campaigns for supporting terrorism.”
Louise Tillotson, a researcher who focuses on the Caribbean for Amnesty International, said the Cuban government is using a familiar playbook. “The tactic of entering someone’s home without a warrant, summoning them … for exercising freedom of expression or assembly is really common in the country,” she said. “You can imagine that this is a real risk or fear that will play out more in the next few days.”
Protesters took to the streets on Sunday to demand government action against increasing food shortages and power outages. But they also took on the government itself: The “Homeland and Life” chant is a play on the communist slogan “Homeland or Death.”
Security forces filled the streets of Havana on Wednesday, according to Yoani Sánchez, the dissident blogger who runs the independent news site 14ymedio. Many stood outside the homes of journalists and activists, she said.
That’s a surveillance tactic Amnesty International reported in December, when police vehicles and plainclothes officers were positioned outside dissidents’ homes for weeks. “For us, that essentially amounts to house arrest,” Tillotson said.
Valdés said he is worried about still-detained friends and colleagues. They include the journalist Camila Acosta, who writes for the Spanish newspaper ABC and whose detention was condemned by Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares.
Despite the crackdown, Sánchez is confident that the demonstrations will continue. “There’s no way to go back to July 10,” the day before the protests. “I think something has been broken in an irreversible way.”