Yudinela Castro has seen her son eight times in the past six months, but in a subdued voice says she would have preferred not to have seen him.
“It would have been better not to have visited him in prison, because he came out full of scabies, with a bad smell and a hellish color. He had not been able to bathe for days,” the mother said in a phone call from Havana.
Castro said her son, Rowland Castillo, 17, was arrested in the middle of the street and interrogated without the presence of his parents or a lawyer. He was transferred to an adult prison just days after the July 11 protests, when thousands of Cubans like him demanded “freedom” in cities across the island during the largest demonstration in six decades of communism.
Castillo, who turned 18 behind bars, awaits an undated trial. Cuban prosecutors are asking for 23 years in prison for the crime of sedition, one of the most common measures applied against protesters who “disturb the socialist order,” according to the Cuban Penal Code.
The Cuban government has detained at least 45 minors between the ages of 14 and 17 for their participation in last summer's protests, according to the group Justicia 11J, made up of activists, independent journalists and lawyers who are documenting the government's repressive measures after the demonstrations. According to Justicia 11J, 14 of those minors remain behind bars awaiting trial. Others have been released on bail or house arrest.
In recent weeks, the government has held trials against at least 204 protesters, according to the group. Some 20 people are already serving prison sentences of between 12 and 30 years for participating in the protests or broadcasting them on social media.
Neither the Cuban government nor the state press — the only one legally permitted on the island — has released information or figures on the detainees, trials and convictions. The official discourse has delegitimized the demands of the protesters, accusing them of being “organized and financed from the United States.”
Cubalex, an independent legal body based in Miami, estimates that some 700 people are still in prison and that 500 have been released pending trial or after receiving sanctions and fines for such common crimes as public disorder, instigation to commit crime and spread of Covid-19.
“The age (of detainees) that is most recorded is 21 years old," Salomé García Bacallao, one of the organizers of Justicia 11J, told Telemundo News. She said it's a way to "teach a lesson" to a young generation that had a strong presence during the protests.
Noticias Telemundo has reached out to the Cuban government but has not received a response.
Parents report threats and layoffs
Four families interviewed by Noticias Telemundo said their underage children had been questioned without the presence of adults or lawyers. Some of them were picked up on the street and their parents weren't informed about their whereabouts for days or weeks. During their detention, they have contracted diseases such as Covid-19, scabies and dengue, families say.
“My son had never been ill,” said Yanaisy Curbelo. Her son, Brandon Becerra, was arrested at the age of 17 last July and has been in the Jóvenes de Occidente prison in Havana for six months. Prosecutors are asking for for a sentence of 18 years in prison for the crime of sedition.
“The worst things in his life have happened,” said Curbelo, adding that her son contracted the coronavirus and hepatitis in prison. “My son didn't know about police, handcuffs or anything political, he was studying for a bachelor's in Spanish language. And I saw him handcuffed as if he had killed Raúl Castro."
The United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF in Cuba, declined to comment about the specific allegations of minors being detained and interrogated without the presence of adults, which violates the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty to which Cuba is a signatory.
“UNICEF Cuba is in permanent contact with the Cuban authorities and carries out actions aimed at strengthening mechanisms for the protection of children and adolescents, working with their counterparts in a coordinated and transparent manner,” a spokesperson for the office based in Havana said via email.
In November, after pressure and complaints on social networks, the agency stated in a tweet that it was “worried about the alleged cases of detention of children reported in Cuba” and urged the authorities to provide information to verify the status of any minors in that situation.
Some of the younger teens arrested after the July protests were 14-year-old Christopher Lleonart, who was detained for a month and stopped receiving treatment for a psychiatric condition, according to complaints the family made. Glenda de la Caridad Marrero, a 15-year-old girl living in the province of Matanzas, was also arrested and accused of leading the protests there. Both were later released.
“I came to see my children after three months in prison,” said Emilio Román, father of Emisyolán Román, who was arrested when he was 17 and turned 18 while in jail. The teenager’s two brothers, 24 and 25 years old, are also in jail and were charged with sedition.
“It is too difficult to hear how many years they ask for each one of them. They ask the youngest for 15 years, the oldest 20 years and the middle 25 years," Román said from Havana. “We are awaiting trial.”
Other parents say they've been pressured by the government after they've posted complaints on social networks.
Bárbara Farrat, the mother of Jonathan Torres Farrat, 17, who was arrested at her home on August 13, said that government agents have threatened to deny her visits to prison if she continues to post on social networks.
“They also told me that I had to make a video speaking well of this country,” she said. Farrat went on a hunger strike in December as a form of protest and tattooed her son’s name on his arm along with the phrase "Patria y Vida," the song that has become an anthem against the communist government.
“When they took the greatest thing from me, my son, they also took away my fear,” she said. “This whole situation has made me declare myself an activist. And as long as a minor is detained, I will continue to denounce it."
Yudinela Castro said she was fired from her job with a state agricultural company days after her son, Rowland Castillo, was arrested. They told her that the family’s political affiliation was the reason, she said.
“I was head of quality control at Acopio. They took my son on July 16 and on the 23rd they let me go. They told me I wasn’t trustworthy because of what my son did," she said.
"An entirely political crime"
Activists say that the crime of sedition, applied to more than a hundred protesters, is the new face of political repression on the island, where protests are rare and quickly suppressed. Justicia11J has registered more than 140 people accused of sedition.
“The crime of sedition is an eminently political crime against state security. This demolishes the discourse that there are no political prisoners in Cuba,” said García, one of the organizers of Justicia11J.
The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the shortage of food and medicine after tourism, one of the main sources of income, was almost completely halted. The economy shrunk by 13.4 percent in the first quarter of last year, according to official data.
Cuba saw a wave of protests that was unprecedented in the recent history of the island, where a little more than 11 million people live.
The government responded to last summer's protests with widespread internet shutdowns, more security forces on the streets and arrests. A number of journalists, artists and more organized political dissidents are in jail awaiting trial, under house arrest or have gone into exile.