Cuba steps up forced exile of dissidents
Cuban artist Hamlet Lavastida sits next to one of his works of art after an interview with AFP in Berlin on October 22, 2021

A month ago, Cuban artist Hamlet Lavastida was forced into exile by the communist government, which he accuses of being afraid of those that speak out in defense of freedom.

Lavastida is one of dozens of dissidents and opponents -- including artists -- of the single-party state banished from their homeland.

"Artists are the best ambassadors of civil rights, of cultural rights, of freedom of expression," Lavastida told AFP in Berlin, where he now lives.

"When they send you into exile ... they think that in the end, you'll forget all this (but) that's not the case," added the 38-year-old.

Lavastida was arrested in June upon returning from a trip to Germany and accused of inciting crime.

Three months later he was set free on the condition he agree to be exiled, along with his poet and activist girlfriend Katherine Bisquet, a member of the opposition San Isidro movement.

He said it was that or "15 to 18 years" in prison.

"I have constant nightmares about prison," said Lavastida, who was left traumatized after being repeatedly interrogated by the police in Havana.

Like many others, Lavastida was accused of seeking to topple the government.

Lavastida "used social media to incite and call for civil disobedience on public streets," said a government website called Razones de Cuba. It claims to be exposing "actions against Cuba directed from the US."

Cuba's government considers all opposition to be illegal and accuses its opponents of being orchestrated by Washington in a bid to provoke regime change.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel has accused the US embassy in Havana of "identifying and promoting leaders, especially among young people" and preparing them abroad to try to unseat the government.

Cuba's authorities "have difficulty believing that there is youth ... that is so thirsty for freedom," said Lavastida.

'The pressure mounts'

Forcing opponents into exile is nothing new for the communist government that came to power in the 1959 revolution.

"Now it's back in force as the pressure mounts and unhappiness has spread to all sectors of society," said opposition figure Manuel Cuesta Morua, 59.

That dissatisfaction exploded on July 11 as unprecedented anti-government protests broke out all over the island nation.

The response from authorities left one man dead, dozens injured and hundreds in prison.

A new call to protest "for change and freedom" on November 15 has been banned by the government, although organizers insist they will go ahead regardless.

The opposition claims that dozens of activists over the last few months have received an exile "proposal," such as dissident artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, who was arrested on July 11, and songwriter Maykel Osorbo.

Youtuber Ruhama Fernandez recently arrived in Miami.

"I didn't abandon my country, they made me leave," she said on Twitter, adding that she was even "escorted to the airplane."

Opposition leader Jose Daniel Ferrer, 51, who was arrested on July 11, has received many invitations to leave the country, says his wife Nelva Ortega.

Ferrer was one of the victims of the so-called Black Spring in 2003, when authorities imprisoned 75 dissidents, accusing them of being US agents.

Freed in 2011, most of the others left for Spain.

'Fleeing the problem'

Artist Tania Bruguera, 53, agreed to temporarily leave the island nation in October after having spent 10 months under house arrest, another method used by authorities to stamp out dissent.

"People, even those that think differently, must be able to enter and leave their country normally, that's our right," complained Bruguera, a professor at Harvard.

Camila Acosta, 28, a Cuban-based correspondent for conservative Spanish newspaper ABC, refuses to leave the country.

"That would be fleeing the problem," said Acosta, who claims she has been confined to her home and under constant surveillance for 100 days.

Others that have left are barred from returning.

In September, Ernesto Soberon, the director of consular affairs, admitted a "minimal" number of Cubans were prevented from returning home over "national security" issues.

Journalist Karla Perez, 23, was turned away when trying to return from studying in Costa Rica.

She was originally expelled from a Cuban university for links with the opposition in exile.

"That's the response to our constant criticisms of human rights violations," said Perez, who says the hardest thing for her is not seeing her family for five years.