Cuba’s six-decade dictatorship has come up with a new way of intimidating critics. It looks as if it were lifted out of Netflix’s “Black Mirror,” a dystopian science fiction television series. It is classifying government critics as “regulated persons” and denying them passports to leave the country.
I first heard about this designation from a 21-year-old Cuban “YouTuber” named Ruhama Fernandez, who, on Aug. 3, announced that she had been denied a passport to receive an international award and visit her parents in the United States. She said that she had gone to the Cuban Interior Ministry’s passport office to get one and learned that she is a “regulated person” and, therefore, couldn’t travel abroad.
I talked to her via Zoom from her home in Palma Soriano, in the Santiago de Cuba province. She is a well-spoken and courageous young woman, who tells her story with a mixture of amazement, humor and horror.
Fernandez told me that when she went to the passport office last week, the clerk who searched her file in the computer told her that she could not get a passport because she was listed as a “regulated person.” That’s a category that has long been used to prevent Cuban physicians from leaving the country. Now it increasingly being used to punish government critics, including journalists and YouTubers like herself.
The Cuban regime argues that it can’t allow doctors to leave the country because they received a free education. Therefore, they have to serve their country. It’s a ridiculous argument because, among other things, most Latin American and European countries also provide free university education to their physicians, without taking away their right to travel abroad.
Fernandez told me that she was preparing to travel to the United States to receive an award for influencers from the Red Cuban Power social-club platform and to see her parents who had moved to the United States three years ago.
The migration office clerk told Fernandez that she needed to “fix her status” before applying again for a passport. That was code that, Fernandez said, really meant that she had to stop criticizing the regime and join the Communist Youth.
“Any person who thinks differently from what the revolution dictates, what the system dictates, can become a ‘regulated person’ or suffer any other kind of human-rights violation,” she told me. “That’s something normal in my country, and it shouldn’t be.”
She added that, “I speak out freely in my YouTube Channel, and anybody who speaks his or her mind in this country is branded by the government as a mercenary — or a ‘worm,’ as they say — to try to denigrate people who think on their own.”
According to the independent Cuban website 14yMedio, which broke the story about Fernandez being prohibited from traveling abroad, at least 150 Cuban citizens were listed as regulated persons by September 2019.
While Cuba’s 2013 immigration reform had significantly weakened the need for Cubans to get state-issued “exit permits” to leave the country, growing numbers of government critics have been denied their right to travel abroad under the new system of “regulated persons,” the 14yMedio said.
Human-rights groups say this is a flagrant violation of the right of free movement established both by the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Cuban Constitution.
Asked about Fernandez’s case, Jose Miguel Vivanco, of Human Rights Watch, told me that, “Cubans, like any other people, have the right to leave their country of origin, despite the Cuban dictatorship’s efforts to treat them as if they were of its private property.”
That’s true. It’s hard to understand how any government in the 21st century can dare to arbitrarily decide who among its citizens can travel abroad. And it’s even harder to understand why democracies around the world are not raising their voices to condemn one of the world’s oldest and most retrograde dictatorships, which has been denying fundamental human rights for more than 60 years.
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