Our Voices

Human Rights under the Cuban Regime More than a Decade after Pro-democracy leaders’ Assassination

  • By
  • Ekeoma Ugo Ezeh

11 years ago today, on July 22, 2012, premier pro-democracy leader Oswaldo Payá and youth organizer Harold Cepero made their way across the island of Cuba on the central expressway headed to Santiago. Near Bayamo they were rammed off the road by an official government vehicle, killing both of them. Their driver, Spanish political activist Ángel Carromero, was subsequently tortured into giving a false admission of fault. The Cuban regime sentenced him to four years in prison for vehicular homicide, to be served in 100 y Aldabó Prison, a place described as the scariest prison in Cuba. Just last month, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a quasi-judicial body of the Organization of American States (OAS), published their decision determining that Carromero’s coerced confession and the Cuban regime’s version of events was all a lie. The Commission found that there was enough evidence to hold the Cuban regime responsible for the murder of Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero. However, over a decade after their deaths, their struggle for democracy and human rights in Cuba continues.

In 1996, the IACHR established that Chapter 4b of their Annual Reports would include an analysis of specific countries in the region whose human rights contexts call for particular concern and special attention. Cuba has been included in Chapter 4b of every Annual Report since 1996, and the IACHR has been consistent in its denunciation of the state of human rights in Cuba. The 2012 and 2013 Annual Reports make specific reference to the deaths and case of Payá and Cepero, citing that several journalists were arbitrarily detained after attending Payá’s funeral, and in a later incident while en route to cover the trial of driver Ángel Carromero. Furthermore, in the months and years following Payá’s death his family continued to receive death threats and on one occasion Payá’s daughter Rosa María was prevented from traveling. In 2020, impulsed by “the constant reports of human rights violations in Cuba,” the IACHR published an entire report on the human rights situation in Cuba, in addition to multiple press statements, hearings, meetings, etc. conducted to address consistent human rights violations and dismissal of international standards.

On July 11, 2021, record-breaking protests broke out across the island. In the largest public demonstrations in over 60 years, thousands of people from all walks of life took to the streets to denounce the regime’s failure to provide food and medicine during the Covid-19 pandemic, lack of democracy, and restrictions on fundamental human rights.

These historic protests, now referred to as the 11J protests, made global headlines and called international attention to Cuba’s dire human rights and humanitarian situation. However, the regime retaliated against Cubans by clamping down on their rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, and a wave of arbitrary arrests and detentions swept across the country. In the days, weeks, and months following the 11J protests more than 1500 people were arrested and detained. The regime used social media footage of the protests to identify protesters and arrest them in their homes. Hundreds of people, including more than 50 minors, were subjected to hasty trials, many of which lacked due process and proper representation. Amnesty International named six prisoners of conscience who were detained in relation to the 11J protests, and civil society around the world continues to denounce the regime’s actions.

So why does the Cuban regime still seem so untouchable? Many attribute Cuba’s apparent immunity to international reproach to their smooth diplomatic tactics with other governments at the United Nations level. The Cuban regime is well known for their poor human rights record, and has a reputation of non-compliance with UN Special Procedures and voting against holding States’ accountable for serious human rights violations. Despite this, the State is currently carrying out their fifth consecutive three-year term as a member of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), a body whose members are elected by the UN General Assembly. In other words, governments around the world have appointed Cuba to the HRC for nearly 15 years! While at the same time Cuban delegates are known to harass and intimidate civil society participants and victims of their regime even in UN fora.

Cuba cannot continue to get away with blatant human rights violations. Cuba’s HRC term is coming to an end and this October the State will be up for reelection. In November, the HRC will conduct its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Cuba. During the UPR process, the HRC and other UN member states – led by Benin, Argentina, and Nepal – will evaluate Cuba’s human rights context during the previous five years based on a national report submitted by the government, and several alternative reports submitted by civil society and other stakeholders. The international community must utilize the months leading up to the HRC elections and the UPR to advocate before UN permanent missions to ensure that Cuba is not reelected to the HRC and that, during the upcoming UPR, the State is held accountable and specific and pertinent recommendations are given.

The Cuba that Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero imagined, struggled for, and died for is indeed possible. Now is the time for the international community and UN member states to do their part in advocating for respect for human rights and democracy.

Click here to read our alternative report on freedom of association in Cuba, submitted jointly with Cubalex, Justicia 11J, and Civil Rights Defenders.