Víctor Romero, a self-proclaimed “professional dissident” living in Cuba, has been one of the few groups actively advocating for dissidents in the island country. Originally a student activist — he’s been arrested several times since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 — he founded an organization called Network Cubans for the Independence of Personal Freedoms and Democracy. For the last few years, it has been a leading force in agitating against the regime’s recent moves to repress peaceful dissent. As Cuba prepares to hold presidential elections on Sunday, with President Raul Castro expected to be re-elected, Channel News Asia reports that Human Rights Watch and the U.S. Departments of State and Treasury are already citing these most recent elections as a chance to hold the Cuban government accountable for its abuses.
Romero, however, is not waiting for government change to begin protesting — and he took to the streets of Havana a couple of days ago to protest against the deportation of his friend, Fredy Álvarez Polanco, who had been picked up for participating in political demonstrations. Álvarez Polanco, who was 41 at the time, was interrogated, imprisoned, and repeatedly tortured, and died at a Cuban hospital after doctors removed part of his skull from the site of his alleged torture and beatings, according to a recent report. Romero decided to take to the streets to protest his friend’s deportation, armed with a sign calling for peace between Cuba and the United States. And since then, he’s been on the receiving end of state-sponsored violence, threatening to cross the Florida Strait if necessary to keep fighting for human rights.
Romero told The Daily Beast he was beaten up five times over a week ago, including three of the five attempts: The first, he said, was with a journalist and security agent, the second was with a plainclothes cop, and the last one was with state security agents who were armed. In another incident, he was beaten and forced to lie on the ground with his hands behind his back. “After that experience I already understood that the Cuban people are always with me and they’re going to defend me,” he said. He also claims he was threatened with suicide if he doesn’t stop his protests.
Romero told The Daily Beast that because his group has received so much attention, including international media attention, the police are increasingly targeting them and trying to confiscate their resources. He said police frequently raid their meeting spaces and confiscate the contents of their computers and cell phones. He and the network have faced repeated arrests and harassment from the government, and when they finally held an international forum on Cuba for the rights of religious minorities in late April, state security agents detained six people participating in the public event.
“Roughly 60 people have been detained, two people have been forcibly disappeared by authorities,” Wolf Blitzer, the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors spokesperson, said in a statement released at the time. “The U.S. government is deeply troubled by these recent violations. The Cuban government is violating basic principles of its own constitution.” In another statement earlier this month, the State Department also said the Cuban government was “undermining its own sovereignty and international commitments to protect free expression, assembly, and association through repression of peaceful dissent.” Romero told The Daily Beast that, at one point this month, government agents attempted to have the group’s private archives seized, but security guards intervened and convinced them to let it continue.
“People say a revolution began here with Castro, but the Cuban people have never stopped fighting,” Romero told The Daily Beast. “We’re not quitting and we’re not leaving.”
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