The Cuban government published an unexpected list of nearly 80 people and organizations in the country’s Official Gazette on Thursday, accusing them of terrorism and declaring them wanted by authorities. Those named range from longtime anti-communist exile groups in Florida to social media personalities critical of the regime.
The decision to put out such a list and label dissidents as terrorists brought swift condemnation from human rights organizations and exile activists targeted in the declaration. Some vowed it would not deter them from speaking out against the communist-run island’s leadership.
Why it matters: The move seems to be in retaliation for U.S. accusations against a recently exposed Cuban double agent. It marks a dramatic escalation by authorities to use the label of terrorism against growing opposition voices both on the island and in the diaspora abroad.
Regime labels opponents ‘terrorists’ after spy revelation
Cuba’s Interior Ministry said those on the list are considered terrorists under Cuban law, resolutions by the United Nations, and the country’s legal code updated last year — but did not specify any violent actions.
Decree-Law 35, passed in 2022, defines terrorism broadly to encompass things like disturbing the public order and activism that threatens the socialist system. Cuban leaders maintain all dissent is orchestrated by the U.S.
The decision to publish such a sweeping list of people accused of terrorism came two weeks after a high-ranking State Department official was revealed to be a longtime Cuban agent. The regime remains silent on the embarrassing espionage revelation.
“It is paradoxical and hypocritical for the regime that came to power by terrorism and stays there by using it to accuse Cubans fighting for freedom of being terrorists,” said Orlando Gutiérrez Boronat, head of the Cuban Resistance Assembly in Miami and one of those named.
Among those declared terrorists were political exiles, journalists, influencers with big social media followings, and people critical of the government’s handling of last year’s protests. The group includes:
- Activist Eliécer Ávila — Arguably Cuba’s most prominent dissident still on the island, he told The Associated Press from Miami, “I wear it as a medal.”
- Paparazzi Cubano — An influencer named Alain Lambert Sánchez whose videos and memes aim to expose repression and dysfunction. He said in an Instagram video the list shows Cuba’s leaders are desperate and, “I am now officially a great patriot.”
- Orchestra leader Yotuel Romero — His song “Patria y Vida” — “Homeland and Life,” playing on the communist slogan “Homeland or Death” — has become an anthem for opposition groups.
Also listed are several militant exile groups involved in armed attacks on Cuba in the 20th century, such as Alpha 66, Comandos F4, and the Cuban Nationalist Party.
Vowing to continue activism despite listing
While the accusations of terrorism long pre-date last year’s street marches, the mass, spontaneous protests that erupted on July 11, 2021, posed a new challenge. They were fueled largely by young people exercising free speech rights enabled by wider internet access.
The resulting images of security forces violently beating protesters sent shockwaves through Cuban-American communities. Florida politicians have since championed measures aimed at tightening the decades-old U.S. embargo on the island.
When President Miguel Díaz-Canel visited New York in November for a U.N. vote condemning the U.S. embargo, scores of emigrants heckled him as a “murderer” and “assassin.”
In recent months, there have been unprecedented protests in Cuban immigrant enclaves in Florida, with people marching through the streets chanting “Cuba Libre!” Thousands showed up for a demonstration in October after a government crackdown on dissidents in Havana.
That, however, appears unlikely to silence the new generation speaking out against Cuba’s single-party system both at home and abroad.
Several people named on the terrorist list said Thursday the accusations would only redouble their commitment to speaking out.
“I am going to continue doing what I have done, telling the truth,” vowed Paparazzi Cubano. “We have used a lethal weapon that they have always feared: truth.”
A now-deactivated Facebook page associated with the influencer frequently published mocking memes and videos accusing officials of repression and criticizing economic dysfunction. It called a Communist Party gathering last year a gathering of “friendocrats” and homophobes.
Such assertions fly in the face of the communist authorities’ insistence that dissidents are a tiny minority of provocateurs fabricating complaints to satisfy the U.S. government.
“I denounce this as a new manipulation by the Cuban dictatorship to silence voices that dissent,” said Alexander Otaola, another influencer who left Cuba and has over 1 million followers on YouTube and Facebook. “We have used a lethal weapon that you always feared: The truth.”
As evidence for his inclusion on the terrorist list, Ávila published on his Facebook page on Friday an “urgent search notice” sent to migration officials at all air and sea exit points in Cuba. It said he should be arrested if located for posing a danger to society.
Despite arrest threats, ALL of those reached Friday said they would continue speaking out against the Cuban government and using social media to document daily economic hardship on the island.
Document signals increased isolation, paranoia, experts say
The list delivers the message that “the verge of returning to yesteryear’s exclusive, closed circuit is nearer,” wrote Abraham Jiménez, a Cuban journalist based in Spain who runs a popular WhatsApp news channel about Cuba.
“Isolation, authoritarianism, persecution, and vigilance again reign in the imagination of political decision-makers,” he said. “Terror is assumed as the prime tool for managing Cuba today.”
As part of the crackdown following protests and amid deepening economic problems last year, Cuban authorities withheld statistics. The number of political prisoners has risen to around 1,000.
Jiménez called this week’s terrorist designation illogical because it targets people demanding social justice while somehow ignoring the U.S. trade embargo’s impact.
The list “attempts to justify policies of extermination directed not at violence, but at freedom of expression and divergence from totalitarian thought,” said the Cuban Human Rights Observatory, a nonprofit monitoring violations inside Cuba, in a statement.
Tensions between Cuba and the U.S. have also soared in recent weeks over migration. The Cuban government has lashed out bitterly at the highest-ranking Cuban American in the Biden administration, accusing Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols of promoting irregular migration.
U.S. remains silent on spy revelations
The terrorism condemnations come after the FBI arrested a former Defense Intelligence Agency official, Ana Belén Montes, on charges of failing to register as a Cuban government agent and conspiracy to provide information to Cuba’s Intelligence Directorate.
Montes previously served a 25-year federal prison sentence for spying while working at the Pentagon in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The Cuban government has so far remained silent on the Montes case after she penetrated the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s ranks during a career that lasted nearly two decades. It hasn’t commented on apparent attempts to reactivate her as a source of information after her release last February and before her arrest at Washington Dulles International Airport this month.
The U.S. has said Montes started spying for Fidel Castro’s government in 1985 after she became increasingly sympathetic to Cuba’s communist system following a visit to the country as a college student.
The case, experts say, was a humiliating breach of national security that shed light on shortfalls in safeguarding secrets that federal officials vowed to address – an effort that has remained a work in progress 35 years later.