José Daniel Ferrer’s arrest reflects the lengths to which the Díaz-Canel government will go against dissidents.
MIAMI — The activist José Daniel Ferrer García made his desperate plea by hand.
“On hunger and thirst strike,” Mr. Ferrer, one of Cuba’s most well-known dissidents, scrawled on a piece of paper smuggled out of prison. “They have done everything to me.”
Mr. Ferrer, 49, has been jailed since Oct. 1 on what human rights activists say is a trumped-up assault and battery case. In his note, he described being dragged, cuffed by his hands and feet, and left in his underwear for two weeks to be nipped by mosquitoes and the morning chill.
“My life is in grave danger,” he warned.
Mr. Ferrer’s detention renews the spotlight on Cuba and the lengths it goes to against dissidents under President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Nineteen months after assuming the presidency amid high hopes for reform within Cuba and abroad, Mr. Díaz-Canel leads a government that bears a striking similarity to the Castro dynasty that preceded him, critics say.
“Let’s not think power changed hands,” said Javier Larrondo of Prisoners Defenders, an advocacy group in Spain that has been closely tracking Mr. Ferrer’s case. “Power is in the same hands.”
In a sign of how seriously the Cuban government is reacting to the international condemnation, particularly in the wake of the toppling of the Evo Morales presidency in Bolivia, the Cuban government this weekend published a 10-minute video that purports to show Mr. Ferrer banging his own head on a table while in custody, suggesting his wounds were self-inflicted. The government says that the United States government has orchestrated a “campaign of lies” regarding the case.
Even well-known blogger Yoani Sánchez weighed in, saying the video was damaging to Mr. Ferrer and his movement. His family and supporters fired back, pointing to various ways in which what the government presented as an exposé appears to be manipulated, and argue that the shirtless man hitting his own face is not him.
The United States State Department said that its top diplomat met with Mr. Ferrer and other dissidents in its pursuit of human rights.
“The Castro regime’s first recourse is to dust off obsolete talking points from what should be a bygone era and describe any independent voices as mercenaries, subversives, and spies,” a State Department spokesman said in a statement.
Since he took office, Mr. Díaz-Canel has unsuccessfully sought to improve living conditions amid widespread gasoline shortages and crippling United States sanctions. While Cuba has expanded internet access, enabling Cubans with new 3G cellphone service to post daring complaints on social media, Mr. Ferrer’s case has come to represent what can happen when they complain too much, particularly as access to the internet gives birth to new class of independent media.
Mr. Ferrer had been in custody for nearly two months when his family was notified of the formal charge against him. The announcement came after criticism of his detention from across the political spectrum in the United States, including from former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The European Parliament last week approved a joint resolution calling for his “immediate release.”
In a very unusual statement in the official Communist Party newspaper, Granma, the Cuban government described Mr. Ferrer as a “salaried agent at the service of the United States” with a history of beating his wives. His former partners posted videos denying the latter accusation.
As a community organizer, Mr. Ferrer, who is from Santiago de Cuba in the country’s east, helped collect thousands of signatures for Project Varela, a referendum demanding greater political freedom that was presented to the Cuban National Assembly in 2002. That movement’s leader, Oswaldo Payá, died in a car accident 10 years later. Many believe he was murdered.
Mr. Ferrer was caught up in the 2003 crackdown on dissidence known as the Black Spring, and served eight years in prison. He was one of the few members of a group of 75 political prisoners who refused an offer of release in exchange for exile in Spain.
“José Daniel Ferrer could read and understand the streets of Cuba,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division. “My sense is that is precisely the reason they fear this guy more than anybody else.”
Mr. Ferrer emerged from prison to found the Patriotic Union of Cuba, known as UNPACU. The organization distinguished itself by tapping into social discontent born of Cuba’s frequent food shortages and other hardships.
“He has a feeding center where he provides lunch to the elderly and disabled,” said Martha Beatriz Roque, a prominent dissident who is close to Mr. Ferrer. “The dictatorship is not in agreement with that, because that implies leadership.”
Over the past two years, dozens of dissidents have gone into exile, including several who met with President Barack Obama in Havana in 2016 and all 13 members of a lawyers’ group called Cubalex. The exodus left anti-government activists with no legal assistance.
“I think that we, opponents, are not having our best moment,” Ms. Roque said.
Human rights advocates say that Cuba has about 100 political prisoners and that the number of arbitrary detentions each month dropped by nearly half after Mr. Díaz-Canel took office in April 2018. But that decline, Mr. Vivanco said, largely reflects the fact that there are fewer dissidents remaining in Cuba to be detained.
Mr. Ferrer and three colleagues were arrested on Oct. 1 and accused of kicking a man in the head until he lost consciousness. Mr. Ferrer’s friends and family say that they have proof the man was hurt in a motorcycle accident despite what they call fabricated witness testimony to the contrary.
Nelva Ortega said Mr. Ferrer, her husband, was beaten and lost a great deal of weight during the 25-day hunger strike, which he began after becoming convinced that he was being given contaminated food and water, and has since ended. He refused to wear a prisoner’s uniform and was left undressed for weeks, Dr. Ortega said. She claimed that he had lost half his body mass, but was unable to take any photographs to document it.
“The water that came down from the roof is what they were giving him to drink,” Dr. Ortega said in a telephone interview a few days after her first brief visit with him. “The food looked like it was ready to be thrown out, like the food you would give to pigs.”
In a letter to the United Nations, the Cuban government said that accusations of torture were lies.
But Alan P. Gross, a former contractor from Maryland who spent five years in prison in Cuba, said that although the notion that Mr. Ferrer lost half his body weight was probably an exaggeration, it was customary for prisoners to be fed meals infested with ants or roaches.
“I lost 70 pounds by the time my case went to trial,” Mr. Gross said. “I thought Díaz-Canel would be better, because he wasn’t part of the family, and he never really had a military background.”
The president, he said, is probably not fully in charge, given that Raúl Castro is still head of the Cuban Communist Party.
“I had high hopes for him,” Mr. Gross said. “I still have hopes for him.”
The Cuban government, which generally does not respond to media inquiries, did not reply to requests for comment left with its embassy in Washington and with the prosecutor’s communications office.
Although Cubans approved a new Constitution early this year, the changes it contained have not resulted in meaningful policy shifts. The biggest transformation in Cuba came after the Díaz-Canel administration allowed 3G service: More Cubans have been complaining online about police abuses, and when Mr. Díaz-Canel visited a community struck by a tornado in February, residents heckled him while others filmed him scurrying away. The remarkable scene was virtually unimaginable years ago.
The president is also grappling with tough challenges from Washington. The Trump administration has imposed a series of sanctions, choking its fuel supply and curtailing travel.
Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat and academic in Havana, said Mr. Díaz-Canel has been too slow to enact measures to bolster the economy, but disputed that repression against government critics was a problem, however.
“Nobody is jailed in Cuba because of their opinions, no matter what people think,” Mr. Alzugaray said. “Succeeding Fidel and Raúl is not easy. When you are the guardian of a legacy you have a problem: There’s expectation of change, and there is also expectation of continuity.”