On Christmas Day, 2010, in the picturesque beach city of Holguín, Cuba, independent journalist Antonio Michel Lima Cruz and his brother and fellow journalist Marcos Maiquel decided to have a holiday gathering for friends and family at their home.
As day turned to night, the party gathered steam and drifted outside, where the brothers decided to play the music of a highly political Cuban hip-hop group—Los Aldeanos (“the Villagers”)—that routinely called for increased freedom of political expression on the island nation. As the brothers and their friends and family danced and sang in the streets, waving Cuban flags, secret police gathered nearby.
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The police waited until after midnight. In a rush, they raided the Lima Cruz home with 40 pro-government supporters in tow. The Lima Cruz brothers were arrested, and their entire family was detained. Most of the Lima Cruz clan was ultimately released without charge, but not all of them.
Five months later, Antonio Michel and Marcos Maiquel were sentenced to two and three years of prison respectively for “insulting symbols of the homeland” (ultraje a los símbolos de la pátria) and “public disorder” (desórdenes públicos).
Amnesty International has been keeping tabs on the Lima Cruz brothers’ case since it learned of the arrests.
While the country’s economy may be modernizing, open political expression is still a very brave and very dangerous act in Cuba.
“We believe the sentences are politically motivated,” Ilona Kelly, Campaigner for Individuals at Risk at Amnesty, tells TakePart. “These are protesters of conscience.”
The arrests of the Lima Cruz brothers may come as a surprise. There’s been a popular perception in the United States that since taking control of the Cuban presidency from his ailing brother Fidel in 2008, Cuban President Raul Castro has lead a gradual effort to relax his country’s strict Soviet-era political autocracy. Early in his presidency, the younger Castro eased restrictions on the private purchase of computers and DVD players—a seeming nod to the abandonment of militant information control.
In 2011, Raul launched a series of reforms to liberalize the strict Communist economy in Cuba established by his brother Fidel. The younger Castro eased restrictions on small business and created the legal framework for the purchasing of land—the first time Cuban citizens have been allowed to buy private property since the Cuban revolution.
And yet, much like China’s entry into the capitalist world over the past decade, Cuba’s changing economy has not been accompanied by the liberalization of political freedoms.
“In terms of freedom of expression, we have longstanding concerns,” says Amnesty’s Kelly. “People have been arrested and harassed after expressing their beliefs and protesting. Whether it’s gotten better or worse, I can’t say.”
While the country’s economy may be modernizing, open political expression is still a very brave and very dangerous act in Cuba. At least 75 “prisoners of conscience” are currently locked up in prisons across Cuba. Over the past few years, in solidarity, the wives and mothers of these inmates have gathered in protest at various churches across Cuba.
For their habit of dressing in immaculate white church clothes, these women have come to be known as the Ladies in White. They too have suffered persecution from police for their efforts.
“Members have been repeatedly prevented from meeting,” says Kelly, “including attending mass on Sundays.”
According to Amnesty, Cuban police recently detained two members of the Ladies in White after a protest. The women still await charges. In March, 70 Damas de Blanco were detained by Cuban authorities and prevented from attending an outdoor Havana mass celebrated by Pope Benedict.
Cuba may be on the verge of great change as it enters the tail end of the Castro brothers’ dueling regimes. For the growing number of prisoners of conscience on the island—including at least one American, Alan Gross, who has been in prison since 2009 for attempting to set up Internet services for a small Cuban Jewish community—that change remains elusive.
What will it take for Cuba to honor free speech for its citizens, and when will that happen? Leave your estimates in COMMENTS.
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Matthew Fleischer is a former LA Weekly staff writer and an award-winning social justice reporter in Los Angeles. Email Matt