June 19, 2019 / 8:04 AM / a month ago

Cuba forces dissidents into exile, advocacy group says

MADRID (Reuters) - Cuba’s state security is pressuring dissidents to go into exile in its attempt to weaken opposition on the Communist-run island, a non-governmental human rights organization said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: Members of the 'Ladies in White' dissident group march in Havana, March 20, 2016. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino/File Photo

The Madrid-based Cuban Prisoners Defenders released a 259-page report that named 35 activists, independent journalists and artists whom authorities had forced to leave the country over the past two years, telling them never to return.

State security threatened them with prison or bodily harm if they did not leave and harassed their families, the NGO, which has links to Cuba’s largest opposition group, the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), said.

Cuba’s government, which did not reply to a request for comment, accuses dissidents of being mercenaries paid by its longtime Cold War foe, the United States, to undermine it and typically dismisses such charges as attempts to tarnish its reputation.

Cuban Prisoners Defenders NGO, which formed late last year, said more than a third of the 26 activists who responded to its online survey said they were escorted to the airport by state security and forced into exile.

Some were given boarding passes, typically for flights to Guyana where Cubans can get a tourist visa on arrival, and money for their first month, it said.

“We have found a variety of cases. Cases where the activist cannot be broken and is put on a plane, cases where the activist has a weak point, through their child or mother, and they attack there hard, leading the activist to give in and he goes to Guyana to beg,” Cuban Prisoners Defenders representative and UNPACU member Javier Larrondo told a news conference in Madrid.

The group said that during an eight-day survey period this month it identified 42 more people whom state security forces were currently pressuring to leave and concluded there were likely many more cases.

Larrondo said Cuban authorities had long encouraged some dissidents to leave but were becoming more systematic and aggressive, partly to bring down the number of political prisoners in jails.

One of the activists mentioned in Wednesday’s report, Eliecer Gongora Izaguirre, told Reuters by telephone from Costa Rica that state security escorted him to the airport to board a flight to Guyana in February, forcing him to leave behind his four children and wife.

“I intend to get to the United States because it is the country that most offers us security,” the 37-year-old said.

Previously he had been imprisoned for six months and his family had faced continuous harassment for his activism in UNPACU, he said. That included having their home expropriated and his children being taunted at school, he said.

A Havana-based Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the state tended to pressure little-known activists rather than high-profile figures, which would more likely spark international outcry.

Gongora Izaguirre said that from Guyana, he crossed the border to Brazil and Peru from where he started a perilous trek north on buses and by foot, through jungle and across rivers through Ecuador, Colombia and Panama to Costa Rica.

He knows finding refuge in the United States will be hard because the Trump administration has cracked down on asylum seekers.

“I’m not going to give up the fight,” he said. “I’ll only give it up when I’m dead.”

Reporting Madrid Newsroom and Emma Pinedo; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Alison Williams

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