Yvis Abadin says it was on July 12 — the day after unprecedented anti-government demonstrations exploded across Cuba — that her 19-year-old son Michael Carey Abadin was taken.
There were still scattered acts of protest popping up around their neighbourhood in Old Havana, where police and pro-government vigilantes called Rapid Response Brigades had a heavy presence.
“Michael went down to the street and sat on the sidewalk talking with a friend,” Yvis Abadin told CBC News. “Some people from another building about half a block away threw some rocks and broke the windshield of a police car.
“An hour later, some big men in civilian clothes with bats came by and detained Michael.
“There are many witnesses who saw that my son was just sitting there. They’re holding my son in prison unjustly.”
Michael Carey Abadin, who holds Canadian citizenship and was planning to begin university in Canada, was one of approximately 3,000 people arrested during or after the protests against Cuba’s one-party rule.
The more than 500 Cubans imprisoned in connection with the protests are experiencing “horrific” conditions, said Juan Pappier of Human Rights Watch, whose organization has spoken with 130 people arrested on July 11 and 12.
“The cells are overcrowded,” he told CBC. “They have very little food. They don’t have access to water for many hours. The conditions are so bad that many of them told us that they lost track of time. They didn’t know what day it was or what time of day.”
A Human Rights Watch report says detainees have been “forced to squat naked, apparently deliberately deprived of sleep, brutally beaten, and held in cells without natural light.”
“During these detentions, many of the prisoners are subjected to repeated interrogations where they are forced to confess to crimes they haven’t committed, or to identify people who are presumably responsible for organizing the demonstrations,” Pappier told CBC.
The report also says prisoners are woken up in the night and ordered to shout political slogans such as “Viva Fidel!” Those who don’t are sent to tiny punishment cells.
Branded a ‘worm’
Yvis Abadin said that on the first day of her son’s journey through the Cuban prison system, he was taken to a police barracks called “punto 30” where police officers accused him of being a “gusano” (worm) or counter-revolutionary. He was then taken to a “centre of operations” on Picota Street, she said, and after three weeks was transferred to the Jovenes de Occidente prison in the Havana suburb of El Guatao, where he remains.
That was where he met fellow detainee Rolando Remedios, who was arrested on 11 July. An Agence France-Presse news photograph of Remedios being choked and forced into a police car by a government vigilante was published around the world and became an iconic image of the day.
Remedios, a 25-year-old medical sciences student, said he had been trying to reach the protest on Havana’s waterfront boulevard when he was intercepted by police.
“The first day was terrible,” he told CBC. “We were taken to that prison, and the way they welcomed us was brutal. I was lucky because they took me to a punishment cell, they booked me, they listed me as a counter-revolutionary. So you get a different treatment normally, like torture.
“But for some reason I was taken back, I was quickly taken to a normal cell. Those who remained in the yard suffered terrible beatings.”
After a stay in Jovenes de Cotorro prison, Remedios said he was moved to Jovenes de Occidente, where Canadian Michael Carey Abadin was working as a “pasillero” — an inmate whose job it is to clean hallways and cells, distribute water and carry out other chores. That brought Carey Abadin into contact with other political detainees held in isolation.
Remedios said he “fondly” recalls the young prisoner whose nickname was ‘Canada’.
“He’s a caring person,” Remedios told CBC. “If we called him, he would go quickly to our cell and ask us what we needed.”
Remedios said Carey Abadin seemed to be holding up and was healthy. Since then, however, his plight has worsened.
Throughout July and August, COVID-19 was running rampant through Cuban prisons and Michael Carey Abadin was soon infected.
“They gave him practically no treatment,” said his mother. “Finally, they took him to see a doctor and gave him interferon.” Interferon has been shown to be ineffective as a treatment for COVID-19.
“After five days they brought him back to the prison, and then he got hepatitis,” she said. “And then from hepatitis, he got herpes.”
HSV-1 (non-genital) herpes is often transmitted through contact with other individuals’ cold sores or saliva. It’s common in Cuban prisons.
Yvis Abadin said she was finally able to see her son on October 19 after nearly three months without an in-person visit.
“When I entered the visitors’ room, Michael was about three meters away, but I didn’t recognize my son until I got closer …” she said.
She described him as emaciated, with yellow skin pockmarked with lesions. “He didn’t give me a kiss or a hug, like he always does,” she said. “He was unfocused. It was evident that he’s in shock, he’s traumatized.”
No consular visits
Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, to which both Canada and Cuba are signatories, guarantees Michael Carey Abadin the right to Canadian consular visits. But according to both Yvis Abadin and the Canadian government, Cuban authorities have not granted him that right.
Yvis Abadin said that a Canadian embassy official told her that because Michael is also a citizen of Cuba, Cuban authorities have denied the embassy the right to intercede.
When CBC News asked Global Affairs (GAC) about that situation, the department responded that it “is aware of a Canadian individual detained in Cuba. Consular officials are in communication with their family and local authorities. Due to privacy considerations, no further information can be disclosed.”
When subsequently informed that CBC News was aware that consular visits were being denied, a GAC spokesperson said that “Canadian officials remain engaged with Cuban officials and continue to seek consular access to the individual.”
Ailen Carbonari of the Cuban Embassy in Ottawa told CBC News that “for the moment, I don’t have any answer to give you” about the case.
This week, a man in the Artemisa province was sentenced ten years for breaking a portrait of Fidel Castro on July 11.
Human Rights Watch’s Pappier said that prosecutors are demanding decade-long sentences for allegedly damaging government property during the protests. Yvis Abadin said she has been warned to expect her son to spend between three and five years behind bars.
“I think the Canadian government has to protect my son as a citizen. And I don’t think they’re doing enough for Michael. They could be doing more,” she said.
Canada has leverage
“They have a right under international law to be able to see him,” Pappier told CBC. “I think the response needs to be more forceful. It needs to be public, it needs to be vocal and outspoken.”
As Cuba’s top source country for international tourism — the mainstay of the island’s economy — Canada has considerable leverage.
But many Cuban-Canadians are wary of the Trudeau government given the decades-long personal relationship between the Trudeau family and the Castros, as well as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s past expressions of admiration for former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
Pappier said the Cuban regime also views the Canadian government as unlikely to pressure it.
“Historically, the Cuban government sees Canada as a government that is not willing to speak up on human rights violations in Cuba,” he said.
There has been movement in recent months, though. The Trudeau government’s first response to pro-democracy protests in July was tepid and downplayed calls for an end to dictatorship. But in the wake of protests by Cuban-Canadians, the government came out somewhat more strongly against the Communist Party’s violent crackdown on free expression.
“More public statements of this kind could help in this case as well as many others,” said Pappier.
Risking all to speak out
Rolando Remedios is speaking up even though he knows it could send him straight back to prison.
He’s currently out on parole, with charges of sabotage, public disorder and propagation of disease hanging over his head. (The government has charged protesters with violating COVID restrictions. Government supporters who assembled the following day were not charged.)
Knowing that Michael Carey Abadin remains in prison, he said, “breaks my heart, because the conditions are terrible. I’m sure that people that live in developed countries, that have humane prison systems, can’t fathom what it’s like to be a prisoner here, even more a political one, because those can suffer way more.
“That’s why I’m here giving you this interview, even though I could go back to prison as a result of it. Because he doesn’t deserve to be there.”