Obama’s policy shift entailed a prisoner exchange and steps to restore diplomatic relations, but set no conditions on an end to repression on the island – a key criticism on Capitol Hill at the time.
Among those arrested hours before open an open microphone event planned for the capital’s Revolution Square – for which the authorities refused to grant permission – was Reinaldo Escobar, the editor of 14ymedio, a digital news outlet.
News of his arrest, and that of another prominent dissident, Eliecer Avila, came from Escobar’s wife, Yoani Sanchez, arguably Cuba’s leading blogger.
Sanchez tweeted that police had handcuffed the two outside her home and taken them away in a police vehicle. Eleven hours later – around 10 PM Cuba and U.S. eastern time – she tweeted again that her husband had been released. Avila was still being held, she tweeted subsequently.
An article posted on the 14ymedio site said Sanchez was herself effectively under house arrest, with a police vehicle parked outside her Havana home and four plainclothes officers guarding entrances to the building.
The event planned for Revolution Square, a prominent location that is home to government ministries and is often used for Communist Party events, aimed to allow ordinary Cubans to step up to a public microphone to share briefly their views on the future of Cuba.
Scheduled for 3 PM local time, it never took place. The event’s organizer, performance artist Tania Bruguera, was reported to be missing, and 14ymedio named several others said to have been detained.
In a statement posted on Facebook, Bruguera’s sister, Deborah, said Tania was taken from her home at 10 AM, after security agents banged on her door for hours. She was not allowed to be accompanied by a lawyer, and was believed to have been taken to intelligence headquarters.
She said family, friends and colleagues were extremely concerned as they did not know where Tania was being held or under what conditions.
Later, 14ymedio reported that after his release Escobar reported having seen Tania Bruguera at the police facility where he had been held, and that she had been wearing a “gray convict uniform.”
In a Twitter post noting the arrests Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a Cuban-American and vocal critic of the regime, said, “Oppression in Cuba won’t change while Castro brothers in charge.”
When Obama announced on December 17 that he was changing five decade-old policies on Cuba, reaction was varied, but much of the negative responses from lawmakers focused on the question of political repression.
“This agreement between Obama and Castro leaves out one important aspect: the Cuban people,” Ros-Lehtinen said at the time. “This misguided action by President Obama will embolden the Castro regime to continue its illicit activities, trample on fundamental freedoms, and disregard democratic principles.”
“While I support efforts to empower the Cuban people in the face of their government's oppression, the president’s policy shift will only strengthen the Cuban regime and reduce its incentives to respect the human rights of the Cuban people and to end its support for terrorism,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said it was “a fallacy that Cuba will reform just because the American president believes that if he extends his hand in peace that the Castro brothers suddenly will unclench their fists.”
“A majority of democratic activists on the island, including many that I have met with, have been explicit that they want the U.S. to become open to Cuba only when there is reciprocal movement by the Castro government,” he added.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), another Cuban-American, said Obama through his action was not just putting U.S. national security at risk, but was also “letting down the Cuban people, who still yearn to be free.”
Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said Obama was rewarding the Havana regime “at the expense of the Cuban people,” while Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) called the policy shift “nothing short of total capitulation to a brutal regime that has repressed millions.”