On Human Rights Day this year, somewhere between a few dozen and a few hundred people — including punk rockers, intellectuals, dissidents, and a pair of Argentine tourists — were detained in Cuba.
Several were taken into police custody outside the home of Antonio Rodiles, the embattled organizer of Estado de SATS, an independent intellectual forum with a strong web presence. Rodiles held a small, two-day human rights conference at his home in Havana that became a hub of activist and police activity on December 10 and 11.
Twitter users reported that throughout Havana opposition activists trying to make their way to Human Rights Day events were stopped and detained by state security officials. Conflicting accounts have made it difficult to confirm precisely how many people were detained. According to friends of Rodiles, state security officers surrounded his home the night before the event began, stopping participants en route to the house.
The next morning, organizers were faced with a new obstacle: teenagers. A group of secondary school students arrived outside Rodiles’ home and remained there throughout the day, playing games, singing songs, and reciting political slogans.
Artist and opposition blogger Lia Villares described an absurd scene of bloggers, activists, friends and family gathered inside Rodiles’ home and attempting to focus on their conversations, while students loudly sang and chanted patriotic slogans outside. Villares suspected the students were brought to the site by State Security, in a deliberate attempt to disrupt the event. She tweeted:
#DDHHCuba2013 Exhiben a un grupo d estudiantes secundaria al frente d la casa, tipica manipulacion, la S.E. no da la cara, usa menores
— Lia Villares (@liavillares) December 10, 2013
They’ve brought a group of secondary school students in front of the house, typical manipulation, the S.E. [state security] doesn’t show its face, it uses minors instead
Some hours later, she continued:
#DDHHCuba2013 los estudiantes de secundaria declaman poesias y hacen dramatizados sobre los derechos del nino, gritan “fidel”, canta un coro
— Lia Villares (@liavillares) December 11, 2013
#DDHHCuba2013 the high school students recite poetry and do skits about children’s rights, shouting “fidel” they sing a chorus
Upon exiting the house, several participants were arrested, including Rodiles. Boris Larramendi, a Cuban musician based in Spain who performed at the event, told Diario de Cuba:
Llevaban rato allá afuera, pensábamos que no iban a hacer nada (las autoridades) delante de todos esos niños, pero de pronto miro y veo que hay una molotera, que les están dando golpes y que los están arrastrando.
They stayed outside for a little while and we thought they weren’t going to do anything in front of all those kids, but then I look and I see there is a whole mess of people, that they’re hitting and dragging people away.
Among others arrested were bloggers Calixto Martinez and Walfrido López and filmmaker Kizzy Macias. Multiple sources reported on the arrest of political punk rock musician Gorki Aguila, who has been detained and imprisoned several times in recent years. Other arrests took place around the city, but it has been difficult to track and verify reports. The Miami Herald estimated that over 150 arrests took place in total, and reported on December 12 that police had freed all of those taken into custody on December 10 and 11.
Arrests were not limited to Cubans — two Argentine tourists, both active PRO (right wing) party supporters who had heard about the event online, were arrested shortly after arriving. A group of college students from the US, traveling the world with the academic tourism program Semester at Sea, somehow found their way to the event but were spared detention.
Yohandry Fontana, a mysterious online figure regarded by many as the digital voice of state security, tweeted that Rodiles was arrested for “attacking children” on the street.
Confirmo detención de Antonio Rodiles x agredir e insultar a niños que jugaban en la vía, como parte de jornada recreativa. #DDHHCuba2013
— Yohandry Fontana (@Yohandry8787) December 11, 2013
I confirm that Antonio Rodiles was detained for attacking and insulting children who were playing in the street, as part of their play time.
Although friends of Rodiles documented the event on camera, the resulting video is somewhat overproduced, making it difficult to determine the veracity of the footage.
Iroel Sanchez, an outspoken pro-government blogger, wrote a long post decrying activists and foreign media who portrayed the circus outside Rodiles’ home as an injustice. He described the organizers of the forum as “those who ask for a stronger blockade, who depict themselves as terrorists and receive technology and money to deliver falsehoods about Cuba.”
In a similar vein, Yohandry Fontana later tweeted:
— Yohandry Fontana (@Yohandry8787) December 11, 2013
Antonio Rodiles is paid by the Cuban National Foundation (terrorists) to provoke violence in #Cuba #DDHHCuba
Rodiles has been a target of state security for some time and has been arrested in the past. There is some evidence of Rodiles communicating and sharing information with US government agencies that sponsor “democracy development” programs in Cuba, a controversial activity that is forbidden by the Cuban government. Fontana's allegation that he is associated with the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, a longtime advisor and supporter of conservative federal lawmakers in South Florida, is not a baseless claim. But the character of Rodiles’ advocacy efforts and the tone of the intellectual debates he convenes are not entirely consistent with those of Miami's old-guard exile community. Rodiles’ messages are often rooted in international human rights doctrine – freedom of expression and access to information are hallmarks of his discursive style.
While many of the island's most prominent human rights activists are now known to receive support from the US government, there are those who genuinely want change but do not want to associate with foreign interests. It is this small minority that may prove most interesting in Cuba's near political future.