Cuba and the United States are in dispute over the prolonged detention of a Cuban dissident.
José Daniel Ferrer, head of an opposition group called Patriotic Union of Cuba, has been jailed since Oct. 1 on unspecified charges. Ferrer was one of the 75 dissidents arrested in 2003 during a nationwide crackdown in Cuba known as the Black Spring. He founded the Patriotic Union after his release in 2011.
The State Department has denounced Ferrer’s arrest, and the European Union passed a resolution urging his immediate and unconditional release. Amnesty International and other human rights groups say Ferrer, who went months without seeing a judge, was denied the presumption of innocence.
Cuba calls Ferrer, whose organization receives funding from the State Department, a “paid agent working in the service of the United States.” He faces nine years in prison.
But Ferrer, it turns out, may not be the typical political prisoner. According to colleagues and Cuba’s official newspaper Granma, Ferrer was not arrested for his activism but rather for the alleged kidnapping and assault of a former Patriotic Union member.
Obama, Trump and Cuba
Ever since the 1959 Cuban Revolution established communist rule on this Caribbean island, the U.S. has criticized Cuba for its lack of freedom of expression, right to assembly and legal due process.
U.S.-Cuba relations improved markedly with the reestablishment of diplomatic and some economic ties under President Barack Obama. But they have turned icy again under Donald Trump.
U.S.-Cuba relations may be stuck in the past, but Cuba has changed. LGBTQ people, previously harassed, are protected by new laws. Internet access, once a rarity, is accessible today – if quite pricey – via a 3G mobile network.
The country also has a president who’s not related to Fidel Castro, a generation of entrepreneurs that blossomed under Raul Castro’s 2008 economic liberalization program and a new constitution. As of late 2019, Cubans may now own private property and assemble with more legal guarantees.
Nor is Cuban civil society today simply “the opposition.” As my 2019 documentary “Rethinking Cuban Civil Society” demonstrates, it includes a variety of people, groups and even government agencies that, with varying degrees of autonomy and vigor, advocate for – and sometimes achieve – change.
The significant recent political and social reforms are largely a result of their efforts, coupled with the slow evolution of Cuba’s own political process under new leadership.
Challenges for Cuba
Still, when it comes to political rights and freedom of expression, Cuba remains below international standards. According to Human Rights Watch, many people are still arbitrarily detained by Cuban police each year.
Independent journalists also face daily pressures. Cuba Posible, a sometimes critical digital magazine founded in 2014 “not from the perspective of confrontation, but rather conciliation,” closed last year after years of government harassment, pressure and persecution.
And the 2017 firing of a prominent law professor at the University of Oriente for publishing on “unofficial” leftist websites recalls the “gray period” of the 1960s and 1970s, when Cuban intellectuals were routinely ostracized and jailed.
Such incidents inform the international view that José Daniel Ferrer is the victim of a repressive state.
Patriotic Union vs. Ferrer
Recent news, however, reveals that the situation is more complicated.
In a Facebook Live stream posted by one of Patriotic Union’s former members, Sergio García González, the dissident says that after a professional disagreement Ferrer trapped him “all night long” and punched him.
The story ran on the Cuban news channel Noticiero Estelar on Nov. 27, 2019, nearly two months into Ferrer’s incarceration. That segment also featured a video, filmed on hidden camera, which showed Ferrer alone in a prison office beating his head violently against a table. Seconds later, when a man enters the room, Ferrer says that he was beaten by prison officials.
Another negative account of Ferrer came to light more recently. In a video posted online on Dec. 7, 2019, a former Patriotic Union member named Meleidys Gómez accuses Ferrer and his brother of financial fraud, saying they used the organization’s U.S. funding for personal purposes.
In 2016, Patriotic Union received US$99,431 from the State Department for the “advancement of democracy and human rights,” according to State Department budgets.
It is one of many Cuban dissident groups that receive substantial U.S. funding. Ferrer’s arrest has renewed debate on the island about the U.S. government’s continued financing of pro-democracy programs in Cuba, which costs U.S. taxpayers around $20 millions annually. As of today, more than $200 millions have been spent on regime change programs as mandated by Congress without any success.
Old assumptions, new reality
The allegations against Ferrer are unconfirmed. As the Cuban investigative news site El Estornudo suggests, both the lack of a free press in Cuba and Ferrer’s spurious credibility make it hard to get to the bottom of this confusing case.
But since the allegations against Ferrer came to light, other Patriotic Union members have come forward to assert that they were aware of both Ferrer’s violent personality and his financial malfeasance. Ferrer himself previously acknowledged hitting a different Patriotic Union member, in 2017, as shown in this video published last December by another member of the organization.
Together, these details suggest that international calls for the “immediate and unconditional” release of this “Cuban political prisoner” were premature. They indicate a reaction premised on historic reflex rather than known facts.
In Cuba, not every prisoner who is political is a political prisoner.
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María Isabel Alfonso is part of the board of Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE), an organization that has contributed to the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S.