By FRANCES ROBLES
Published July 17, 2008
Cuban activist Jorge Luis Garcia Perez has lost count of how many times he has been arrested since last year, when he finished serving every day of a 17-year prison sentence and then some.
Garcia, better known as “Antunez,” thinks it’s 15, which would be an arrest a month.
The last detention came over the Fourth of July weekend, when about 200 other anti-government activists also were picked up on highways and at homes, hotels, airports, bus and train stations around the island and prevented from attending a U.S. Independence Day celebration in Havana.
They were held for a few hours or a few days and sent home in what critics say was the latest and most massive illustration of a nationwide operation to crack down on opponents.
“Raul Castro’s strategy is to create a mirage of change for the international community to mask the fact that acts of repression are increasing,” Antunez said in a telephone interview from Placetas, Villa Clara, in central Cuba. “They arrest you and let you go tomorrow to hide the sense that there is a wave of repression. I’d call it a ‘wave lite.’ It’s different, and we don’t know what lengths it will reach.
“It’s an extremely critical situation.”
Raul Castro, who formally took over the presidency in February, has been hailed internationally for taking initial steps at reform in the months he’s been in power. But activists argue that just as he allowed cellphones and computers for the first time, Castro launched a harassment campaign against members of the opposition through frequent detentions. The crusade appears designed to keep the overall number of political prisoners steady while sending a strong message that Castro has a firm grip on dissent.
Democracy activists in Cuba say the campaign is akin to the 2003 wave of arrests that landed 75 dissidents in prison for as long as 28 years. In a report made public Thursday, the Cuban Council of Human Rights Monitors documented more than 700 short-term detentions so far this year. The group counted at least 44 people put under house arrest between July 2 and 6, and dozens more deported from Havana or prevented from leaving outer provinces.
The increase in detentions came in late June, immediately after the European Union lifted sanctions it had against Cuba since the 2003 arrests.
Dissidents said the level of strong-arm tactics appears to vary from province to province, with Villa Clara protesters suffering the most.
“It hurt them to see how many people were willing to take risks to go to that event,” said Maria Antonia Hidalgo, of Holguin in eastern Cuba, who was stopped from attending a July 4 party at the Havana residence of U.S. Interests Section chief Michael Parmly. “They are afraid to see the truth before their eyes.”
Saying the driver had been in an accident and they needed witnesses, police stopped Hidalgo in a taxi on the way to the Holguin airport. At the airport, authorities questioned her infant daughter’s identity papers and did not let them board the flight to Havana. The next day she tried to go by rail but was taken off the train, so she attempted the bus instead.
Police made Hidalgo get off the empty bus because all the tickets “had been sold,” she said. Hidalgo never made it to Havana.
In an extraordinary demonstration of its state security apparatus, Cuban agents stopped people nationwide.
Among the nearly 200 detentions: Rene Gomez Manzano was arrested at Hotel Inglaterra in Havana; Yoel Espinosa at a bus station in Santa Clara; Lourdes Esquibel off the street in Miramar, and Amado Ruiz Moreno at a train station in Placetas.
“Raul Castro wants to let people know: ‘We knew you were mobilizing and stopped you at every point in the country,’” said Cuban American National Foundation spokeswoman Sandy Acosta Cox. “They established: ‘We are watching you. We haven’t fallen asleep at the wheel.’”
In Miami, another human rights group - the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba - released a separate 50-page report Thursday detailing the recent wave of temporary detentions of anti-government dissidents. The agency is the human rights arm of the Cuban American National Foundation.