PolitiFact: The truth about political prisoners in Cuba

Raul Castro: What prisoners? Associated Press
Raul Castro: What prisoners?Associated Press
Published March 25 2016
Updated March 25 2016

Cuban President Raúl Castro flatly denied last week that his regime jails political dissidents — a statement experts said was right out of the Soviet playbook.

The revolutionary and brother of Fidel traded jabs with President Barack Obama over human rights on Monday as part of the historic meeting between leaders of the two countries. Castro, who, according to Politico, appeared in his first-ever press conference Monday, fended off a question from a CNN reporter about political prisoners on the island.

"President Castro, my father is Cuban. He left for the United States when he was young. Do you see a new and democratic direction for your country?" asked CNN's Jim Acosta. "And why do you have Cuban political prisoners? And why don't you release them?"

"Give me a list of the political prisoners and I will release them immediately," Castro said, according to the White House translation of his remarks. "Just mention a list. What political prisoners? Give me a name or names. After this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners. And if we have those political prisoners, they will be released before tonight ends."

We thought we'd oblige.

The task is complicated, given that human rights groups and dissidents themselves disagree on the definition of a political prisoner and just how many there are. But the notion that Cuba doesn't have any at all — a notion that the regime has stuck by for decades — is dubious.

"If you ask any autocrat in the world, they're going to say the same thing. If you ask Maduro in Venezuela, if you ask Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Lukashenko in Belarus, Putin in Russia, they'll all say nobody is in jail for political reasons," said Carlos Ponce, director of Latin America programs at the watchdog group Freedom House.

No single list

A few hours before Obama landed on the island, Cuban authorities arrested more than 50 Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) dissidents who were demanding more human rights.

This round of crackdowns was actually part of a weekly ritual — arrest, release and repeat. And it's part of the reason why tallying political prisoners is so hard.

A common understanding of "political prisoners" is people imprisoned for exercising their beliefs peacefully.

We compiled counts from several human rights and activist groups, as well as one vetted by Univision. Together, the groups count 97 political prisoners, and 54 appear on more than one list.

On the low end, the human rights group Cuban Democratic Directorate counts 17, and Univision named 19. Liudmila Cedeño, an activist with Unión Patriótica de Cuba, the country's largest opposition group, told PolitiFact that 22 of its members are imprisoned.

On the high end, the exile group Cuban American National Foundation lists 47, and the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba lists 51.

International human rights groups have murkier tallies. Human Rights Watch pins the number at "dozens," citing Cuba-based human rights groups. Amnesty International, meanwhile, recognized seven "prisoners of conscience" who were released in 2015, but none today.

Some experts contend that the lists are bogus and include people who would not normally be considered political prisoners.

In 2010, the Associated Press went through a list of 167 political prisoners by Elizardo Sanchez, the head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. About 50 people "were convicted of terrorism, hijacking or other violent crimes, and four are former military or intelligence agents convicted of espionage or revealing state secrets," according to the AP.

Even for those who are traditionally recognized as political prisoners, Cuba rejects the term, said Salim Lamrani, a Cuba expert at the University of Paris.

Nonetheless, in 2015, Cuba released 53 people the United States named as political prisoners as part of the deal to normalize trade relations, even though the regime had denied their existence for decades, said Ponce of Freedom House.

Out of the 97 people in our aggregate tally, here are examples of a few who are most in line with the traditional definition of political prisoner:

Yoelkis Rosabal Flores: A member of the Unión Patriótica de Cuba, he was arrested in May 2014 for staging a protest calling for the release of a fellow UNPACU member. Flores was charged with public disorder and sentenced to four years in jail.

Mario Ronaide Figueroa Dieguez: A member of the Unión Patriótica de Cuba, he was arrested in 2012 for staging a protest and told that he would be released if he left the union. Dieguez did but was rearrested in December 2014 (for reasons that aren't clear) and sentenced to three years in jail.

Emilio Serrano Rodríguez: A member of the Unión Patriótica de Cuba, he was arrested in February 2015 for alleged "illegal commercial transactions" and is waiting for a trial. According to the union, he participated in a protest.

Ricardo González Sendiña: A member of Frente de Acción Cívica Orlando Zapata Tamay and the son of Barbara Sendiña, a human rights activist with Damas de Blanco, Ricardo Sendiña was arrested in 2015 for an alleged crime of theft and slaughter of livestock. He was sentenced to six years.

Ghosts of gulags past

Gone are the days when people were explicitly jailed in Cuba for political opposition. The crackdown is manifesting in different ways on the island today.

The regime cracks down on opposition preemptively by "blocking access to the websites of independent journalists, threatening and detaining people to prevent them from participating in peaceful protests and political meetings, and using an Orwellian law to imprison critics for 'pre-criminal dangerousness,'" said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division.

Marselha Gonçalves Margerin, Amnesty International's advocacy director for the Americas, emphasized that the penal code discourages political opposition by criminalizing contempt of public officials, public disorder and resistance to officials.

Margerin told PolitiFact that just because Amnesty doesn't list prisoners of conscience in Cuba currently doesn't mean they don't exist. The practice is rare as the burden of proof is high and often impossible to meet in Cuba, which Amnesty hasn't been able to access since 1990, she said.

Amnesty's last recognized prisoner of conscience was Danilo Maldonado, a 32-year-old graffiti artist known as "El Sexto," who was arrested in 2015 for painting "Fidel" and "Raul" on two pigs.

Court records showed the nonviolent artist was imprisoned "for the sole reason of his beliefs," said Margerin. For months, Maldonado was detained without any charges against him, and then was released in October 2015. This practice of arbitrary arrests and temporary detention has become the new way of stifling dissent.

"How can you dispute a detention if there are no charges or if the person disappeared for a short period of time?" asked Margerin.

The independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reported about 8,600 politically motivated detentions in 2015 and 2,500 from the beginning of the year to March 4, 2016.

Short-term crackdowns are easier and cheaper than long-term imprisonment, said Ponce of Freedom House, especially as more and more people are willing to demonstrate.

"Every Sunday, they take all the (Damas de Blanco) and all the other groups protesting. They arrest them and keep them for 48 hours and then release them. Then they do it again next Sunday," Ponce said.

Activists are cautiously optimistic that Obama's visit could loosen things up, at least for a few days.

"(Castro) would be re-enacting a ritual we've seen for decades when foreign leaders visit Cuba," said Vivanco. "A few jail cell doors swing open, but neither the laws nor the system changes. Unless the government makes meaningful reforms, the regime can always resume jailing people for their speech and political activity once the visitor is wheels-up."

The opaqueness of Cuba's criminal justice system makes an exact count of political prisoners difficult to ascertain. But there are at least a handful of political prisoners, using a common definition, in Cuba. Castro is downplaying his regime's routine crackdowns on dissidents who want free expression.

We rate Castro's claim False.