June 13, 2012
Being a black dissident in “revolutionary” Cuba has always been an especially dangerous vocation. That’s because the military dictatorship attaches its hopes for legitimacy, in part, to the claim that it rescued Cuban blacks from a life of strife. When an Afro-Cuban objects to that narrative, it makes the regime look bad, and that upsets the masters of the island slave plantation. Rage generally follows. Just ask long-time Cuban dissident Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, who this week was arrested for just such a “crime.”
In a June 7 Senate Western Hemisphere subcommittee hearing titled “The Path to Freedom: Countering Repression and Supporting Civil Society in Cuba,” Chairman Robert Menendez (D., N.J) and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) interviewed four Cuban dissidents. Only one of the four was in the hearing room. One of them spoke by telephone from the eastern end of Cuba, and two of them spoke on a video feed from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
One of those at the Interests Section was Mr. Garcia Perez—aka “Antunez”—a 47-year-old activist who happens to be black and already did 17 years in a Cuban prison. Forty-eight hours after giving testimony, Antunez was beaten and detained by Cuban state security. An activist who was with him at the jail said that the police pumped pepper spray into his mouth until he lost consciousness. He was later taken away to a detention center and his wife was not allowed to see him for more than three days.
There can be little doubt that Antunez understood the risks of his participation in the Senate hearing. In the video he explains that he did not have a lot of time to prepare because the event had to be kept a secret. To smuggle himself into the U.S. Interest Section he says he had to “walk kilometers and to hide behind trees and bushes as if I was some kind of a criminal.”
Once inside the walls of the U.S. building, Antunez didn’t pull punches. As he described the hardship endured by pro-democracy activists, he reminded the committee that he was not talking about pre-1959 Cuba or the South Africa of P.W. Botha. He said it is happening today, in 21st century Cuba. He also argued that liberating travel to the island and increasing remittance flows will not accelerate the transition to Cuban freedom. Those policies, he said, “will only create impunity for the regime and allow it to continue its repression.” What the movement needs, he said, is U.S. help for civic groups that want to change Cuba. As he wrapped up, he said that giving a travel visa to Mariela Castro was an insult to Cubans. Might dissidents also be allowed to travel to the U.S. and then return to Cuba, he asked.
During the hearing Mr. Menendez noted the presence of members of the Castro regime, who are posted at the Cuban Interest Section in Washington and were taking notes. The senator promised to “monitor the rights” of those who testified from Cuba and to “make sure that they are not repressed or face any consequences upon their return to their homes.” But someone back in Havana didn’t get the memo. On Monday Mr. Menendez took the floor of the Senate to denounce the “beating and arrest” of Antunez, which he said was “clearly a direct result of his Senate testimony.”
The senator called on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and Committee Against Torture to fully investigate the incident, “as well as the more than 2,400 other political arrests that have occurred this year in Cuba.” He also asked the State Department to cease providing any non-essential visas for travel to the United States by Cuban officials.
Antunez was finally released this morning but remains charged with assault, resistance, contempt and spreading false information. The state is threatening to prosecute him.