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Protesters in Cuba face severe sentences as crackdown continues


We're going to Cuba now, where last summer thousands of people took to the streets amid a devastating economic crisis. The historic demonstrations were the largest in decades, and they took the government by surprise. But the crackdown was swift. Now hundreds of protesters remain in detention, and many face charges as serious as sedition. Ed Augustin is a correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, and he joins us now from Havana to tell us more. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ED AUGUSTIN: Thanks for having me.

KHALID: So, Ed, I want to begin by just getting a better understanding of who is facing trial, how many people we're talking about.

AUGUSTIN: So human rights organizations estimate that there's still hundreds of people incarcerated in Cuba following last July's protests. Now, some of those protesters destroyed property. Some of them threw stones at police. Some of them overturned police cars. But many of them, the accusation is, were not involved in any sort of violence. And right now, according to those human rights organizations that monitor this, there are 158 people who have either been accused of sedition - that is, rebelling against state authority - or who are going to be on trial in the coming weeks for that same charge.

KHALID: So my understanding is the Cuban government has had a lengthy history of punishing political dissidents, but this is different. You know, are their punishments more severe? Are they more widespread?

AUGUSTIN: The trend over the decades has been towards less political prisoners. But really, when Raul Castro took over in 2006, there was a big effort to reduce the number of political prisoners on the island. And I've been reporting here for 10 years. For most of my time here, the majority of what could be considered political prisoners have actually been in Guantanamo Bay. That's now not the case.

KHALID: I do want to understand from you what you're hearing from Cubans about the trials themselves. What's been the response?

AUGUSTIN: I was reporting in a neighborhood called La Guinera a couple of weeks ago, and I spoke to the families of many of the people who've been sentenced. So a typical example is 18-year-old Eloy Cardoso, who, the day after the massive protests across the country, stumbled across another protest. And Eloy, according to his family, started throwing stones at police. Now, it's not clear if he hit police with those stones. It's not clear whether he did anything else. But from their point of view, this is a hugely disproportionate sentence. He got seven years for sedition.

But just to contextualize things, these are not sham trials in the sense that no evidence has been provided. But there is a feeling amongst the families that these are unjust sentences because of their lengths.

KHALID: Let's step back for a moment. Last summer people were protesting price hikes, power outages and food shortages. To what degree is U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba seen as having a role in potentially changing the economic situation?

AUGUSTIN: So I was reporting on the protests last July. I was here, and it's certainly true that many of the people that came out to protest protested for political reasons. That's to say they were against the one-party state. They wanted free elections. They want expanded freedom of expression. But the thrust, the driving force of the complaints with protesters I spoke to was the dire economic situation that the government and people, more importantly, are facing. And there are two proximate causes for that. One is the pandemic that's completely shattered tourism, which is a major earner, and the other is U.S. economic warfare.

So the U.S. has been trying to overthrow this government for about 60 years. And the Trump administration put over 200 new sanctions on Cuba, and the Biden administration has only added to those sanctions. They haven't taken away a single one. So there is a starring role of U.S. sanctions in generating deteriorating economic conditions in Cuba. And that deterioration continues, quite frankly, as expected, as the pandemic hasn't gone away and as the Biden administration has inherited and persevered with the Trump sanctions.

KHALID: That is journalist Ed Augustin. He's a correspondent for The Guardian newspaper speaking to us from Havana, Cuba. Thanks for being with us.

AUGUSTIN: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL CHICANO'S "CUBANO CHANT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.