Detained protesters in Cuba could get up to 30 years in prison as they face the largest and most punitive mass trials on the island since the early years of the revolution.
Prosecutors this week put on trial more than 60 citizens charged with crimes, including sedition, for taking part in demonstrations against the country’s economic crisis over the summer, said human rights activists and relatives of those detained.
Those being prosecuted include at least five minors as young as 16. They are among the more than 620 detainees who have faced or are slated to face trial for joining the biggest outburst of popular discontent against the Communist government since it took power in 1959.
The severity of the charges is part of a concerted effort by the government to deter further public expressions of discontent, activists said. The crackdown also dashed lingering hopes of a gradual liberalization under President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who in 2018 replaced Fidel Castro’s brother Raúl to become Cuba’s first leader from outside the Castro family since 1959.
“What reigns here is an empire of fear,” said Daniel Triana, a Cuban actor and activist who was briefly detained after the protests. “The repression here doesn’t kill directly, but forces you to choose between prison and exile.”
For six decades, Cuba has lived under a punishing U.S. trade embargo. The Cuban government has long blamed the country’s crumbling economy solely on Washington, deflecting attention from the effects of Havana’s own mismanagement and strict limits on private enterprise.
Cuba exploded into unexpected protest on July 11, when thousands of people, many from the country’s poorest neighborhoods, marched through cities and towns to denounce spiraling inflation, power outages and worsening food and medicine shortages.
The scenes of mass discontent — shared widely over social media — shattered the idea promoted by the Cuban leadership that popular support for the governing Communist Party endured, despite economic hardship.
After being initially caught by surprise, the government responded with the biggest crackdown in decades, sending military units to crush the protests. More than 1,300 demonstrators were detained, according to the human rights organization Cubalex and to Justice J11, an umbrella organization of Cuban civil society groups that monitors the aftermath of the summer’s unrest.
The Cuban government did not respond to requests for comment sent through the foreign media office.
The scale of the government’s reaction shocked longtime opposition figures and Cuba observers.
Cuba’s leaders had always reacted swiftly to any public discontent, jailing protesters and harassing dissidents. But previous crackdowns tended to focus on the relatively small groups of political activists.
In contrast, the mass trials that began in December are, for the first time in decades, targeting people who largely had no connection to politics before they stepped out of their homes to join the crowds calling for change, said historians and activists.
“This is something completely new,” said Martha Beatriz Roque, a prominent Cuban dissident who was convicted of sedition in 2003, along with 74 other activists, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Their sentences were eventually commuted, and most were allowed to go into exile.
“There’s not a single drop of compassion left, and that’s what marks the difference” with the past, she said by telephone from her home in Havana.
Yosvany García, a 33-year-old welder, had never participated in protests or run into problems with the law, said his wife, Mailin Rodríguez. On July 11, he came home for lunch, as usual, from his workshop in the provincial capital of Holguín.
But on his way back to work, he ran into a crowd that was demanding political change, said Ms. Rodríguez. Driven by a surge of indignation at the unbearable cost of living, Mr. García joined the march, she said.
He was beaten by the police who broke up the rally later that day, but came home to his wife that night. Four days later, he was cornered by the police near his home and taken to jail.
On Wednesday, Mr. García was charged with sedition along with 20 other protesters, including five teenagers aged 17 and 16, the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Cuba. All are facing penalties of at least five years in prison; Mr. García is facing a 30-year sentence.
Rowland Castillo was 17 years old in July, when he was detained for joining the protest in a working-class suburb of the capital, Havana. A provincial champion in wrestling, one of Cuba’s most popular sports, Mr. Castillo attended a state sports academy and had never participated in political activities, according to his mother, Yudinela Castro.
She said she only realized he had joined the protest when police came to arrest him several days later. Prosecutors are seeking a 23-year sentence against him for sedition.
Ms. Castro said that after her son’s arrest she was fired from the state food market where she worked. She now lives on donations from neighbors and well-wishers in an abandoned community first-aid clinic with her 2-year-old grandson — Mr. Castillo’s son — as she tries to recover from cancer.
“Through him I came to realize the evil that happens in this country,” she said, referring to her jailed son. “He didn’t do anything, apart from go out and ask for freedom.”
At first, the ascension of Mr. Díaz-Canel, 61, to the presidency in 2018 raised hopes of gradual change in some quarters.
He was not part of the old guard that rose to power with the Castros. In office, he tried streamlining Cuba’s convoluted currency system and introduced reforms to expand the private sector in an attempt to ameliorate a crippling economic crisis caused by the pandemic, sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and dwindling aid from the island’s Socialist ally, Venezuela.
But Mr. Díaz-Canel, born after the revolution, could not evoke the Castro brothers’ anti-imperialist struggles to paper over the ever-declining standards of living. When the protests broke out, he reacted with force.
“They don’t have any intention of changing,” said Salomé García, an activist with Justice J11, the rights group, “of allowing Cuban society any participation in determining its destiny.”