As Cuba prepares for an upcoming final vote on proposed changes to the Constitution, state security agents have cracked down on activists by carrying out multiple arrests and raiding the homes of those who have called for a NO vote on the referendum.
Security forces on Monday detained about 20 members of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) opposition group, including its leader, José Daniel Ferrer. That is the latest chapter in the unequal battle between the government-supported YES vote on the referendum and those pushing for a NO vote.
“During the detention they punched me in the stomach, took me outside with handcuffs put on really tight, shoved me around and hit me on the head a couple of times,” Ferrer said in a phone interview after he was released later Monday. “They told me clearly that it was a response to the campaign against the constitution.”
He added that since there was no guarantee for the integrity of the vote, “I started a hunger strike.”
The wave of arrests has caught the attention of U.S. politicians at a time of tension between the two countries because of Cuba’s support for the beleaguered Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., confirmed on his Twitter account Tuesday that Washington is preparing more sanctions against the Cuban government.
“Cuba regime directs the intelligence & repression activities of the #MaduroCrimeFamily,” Rubio wrote. “Their repression expertise was on display yesterday when they violently raided homes of leaders of #UNPACU & #CUBADECIDE. That’s why more sanctions against them are on the way very soon.”
The new constitution was drafted by a commission appointed by former ruler Raúl Castro, who is still first secretary of the ruling Communist Party. The text already has been approved by the National Assembly and will be submitted to a referendum for a final vote on Feb. 24.
The proposed new Constitution changes some of the structures of government and recognizes private property, but retains the supremacy of the Communist Party and socialist central economic planning. A section that would have recognized gay marriage was eliminated because of fears of losing the YES votes from church members who had voiced their opposition.
Government propaganda in favor of the YES vote has dominated the official media for many weeks. Messages supporting the new Constitution have appeared on storefronts, buses, ATMs, T-shirts distributed by the government and within lyrics of songs broadcast on radio and television. On social media, the official accounts of the presidency, National Assembly, attorney general, Supreme Court and several ministries have been posting #YoVotoSi – #IVoteYes.
“Why does the Cuban government use public spaces, which belong to all citizens, to support just one of the options on the constitutional referendum ballot?” telecommunications engineer Norges Rodríguez wrote on his Twitter account. “Those of us who support the NO vote also own those spaces. We are also citizens of the Republic of Cuba.”
Since the government’s media monopoly has denied access to those calling for a NO vote, activists, dissidents, independent journalists and citizens have turned to social media to challenge the government’s campaign.
The opposition is split between activists calling for voting NO and others who call for boycotting the referendum, saying that voting amounts to legitimizing the government and giving it the chance to alter the results. Opposition leaders like Antonio Rodiles in Havana and the Miami-based Cuban Resistance Assembly have called for a boycott of what they dismiss as “an electoral farce.”
Cuban ruler Miguel Díaz-Canel fueled doubts about the impartiality of the referendum when a post on his Twitter account on Monday appeared to signal that the results had already been decided.
“In 15 days we will have an approved #Constitution, done by all for the good of all. #Cuba will be a better country, more up to date. #IvoteYes #WeVoteYes #WeAreCuba #WeAreContinuity,” he wrote in Spanish. Criticism of his post followed quickly.
“Cuba is the only country where the results are known before the ‘balloting.’ Just as he was hand-picked for his job, now we have a crooked constitution,” a Twitter user identified as Dignorah Castillo posted in reply to Díaz-Canel’s Twitter post. But while the government has been somewhat tolerant of criticism on social media platforms, authorities have detained and harassed activists who have tried to organize efforts against the referendum in public spaces on the island.
UNPACU defied authorities, distributing materials calling for NO votes and posting videos of man-on-the-street interviews on social media. Ferrer said authorities raided the homes of several UNPACU members and seized telephones, computers and all the materials for the NO campaign, such as T-shirts and leaflets.
Cuban users on Twitter also have criticized the government’s suppression tactics to block the votes of Cubans who live abroad but remain official island residents — and can therefore vote in the referendum.
Cuban electoral law requires the National Electoral Commission to cooperate with the Foreign Ministry and the armed forces to do what “is necessary to guarantee the ability to vote by voters who are outside the national territory on the day” of the referendum. The government has organized 698 polling places in Venezuela for “the 22,300 collaborators in 11 solidarity missions,” according to the official Granma newspaper. Diplomats living abroad also will be able to vote. But the Electoral Commission ruled that other legal residents who live abroad will have to return to the island to vote, and perhaps do so early in case there are problems with their registrations.
The government also came under criticism after a tornado devastated parts of Havana. Despite calls to cancel it, the government went through with a student march though the capital during which it distributed T-shirts calling for a YES vote. The march was headed by Castro and Díaz-Canel.
“The government could afford to spend money on T-shirts supporting a bad #Constitution instead of using the money to buy supplies” for the families left homeless by the storm, Nelson Julio Álvarez, a Cuban YouTube activist, posted on Twitter. “It’s embarrassing to see how far they will go to ratify (one constitution for another) that is the same thing… #IVoteNO. “