Canadian says she was barred from seeing family in Cuba for criticizing the government
Lawyer says Cuba has been using entry bans in a bid to stifle criticism from the diaspora
Two Canadian travellers say they got a rude surprise last month when they booked a Sunwing vacation to Cuba and one found herself turned away because of Facebook comments that criticized the country's unelected government.
About 1.3 million Canadians visit Cuba in an average year; Canadians account for more visits to Cuba than citizens of any other country. Most have little contact with the country's repressive state organs. But the situation is very different for Canadian citizens who were born in Cuba.
Cuban-born Toronto resident Glenda Corella Cespedes told CBC News she was travelling with her non-Cuban friend Mary Guaragna to attend her brother's wedding. She said she was carrying suitcases filled with medications and supplies for her mother, who recently underwent chemotherapy for lung cancer, and for a sick family friend.
Corella Cespedes said she had her Canadian passport with her but knew that, as a Cuban citizen, she was required to enter Cuba on a Cuban passport. Cuba charges its citizens $360 for the passport and another $160 every two years. Corella Cespedes said she had paid her fees recently and had her documents in order.
'She knows what she did'
The two landed in Frank Pais Airport in Holguin, Cuba on March 7 "a bit before 9 pm," Corella Cespedes said, adding she was "feeling happy that I was going to see my brother, be able to deliver the wedding suits, the medicine, and all the things I was bringing for my family.
"And then I saw five immigration officers come on the plane and they said everyone could get off except Glenda Corella Cespedes."
Her friend Mary Guaragna told CBC that "at that point, we both sort of looked at each other and became quite concerned. I mean, I was as white as a ghost and Glenda more so than myself.
"Canadians that were exiting the plane were just kind of looking at us as though, you know, we could have been terrorists. We felt awful."
The women said one of the officers took Corella Cespedes's passport and left them on the plane for about 20 minutes as cleaners boarded and worked around them. A man who appeared to be a more senior immigration officer then boarded, Guaragna said, and "presented Glenda with a piece of paper saying 'denial.' With no explanation at all.
"And I said to this man, who spoke English quite well, 'What seems to be the problem?' In my mind, as a Canadian, [I was] thinking we could debark, go somewhere, speak to them, perhaps even pay a fine and allow my friend to continue on with her vacation.
"And he just said, 'She knows what she did, she knows what she did.' And at that point I kind of looked over at Glenda and Glenda sort of gave me a signal to not say anything further."
'Don't post anything else'
Corella Cespedes said her problems began when she liked a Facebook comment that criticized a well-connected Communist Party supporter in Gibara who works as a doctor in the local hospital where Corella Cespedes once worked as a nurse.
The doctor is part of a three-woman musical group who performed for Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero when he visited earlier this year. After posting video of the performance, the doctor was criticized on social media for serenading Marrero rather than pressing him on the hospital's state of neglect and a lack of medicines and food for patients. A number of critical comments came from former residents of Gibara now living outside of Cuba.
The original video has since been deleted.
Corella Cespedes said her parents soon began to receive warnings from local Communist Party members to tell their daughter to stop commenting and posting.
After her expulsion from Cuba, she also received messages via WhatsApp offering "advice" from a person who identified himself as Jose Manuel Santos.
"Take my advice," he wrote on March 29. "You have your parents here and you have nephews, nieces and cousins. Don't put anything else on your (Facebook) wall.
"Your ban is for two years but if you keep on sharing things on your wall they'll change it to life. You have your mom here. Behave for me."
The Cuban Embassy in Canada closed in February for an indefinite period and calls to the Ministry of Interior in Cuba were not answered.
Cuba imposing entry bans more often: lawyer
Laritza Diversent, a Cuban lawyer now living in the U.S., said the Cuban government has been using travel bans more often to stifle criticism from the Cuban diaspora — criticism that has gotten much louder since the anti-government protests of July 11, 2021.
"Not all of the cases have been about criticisms on social media," she said. "This is a mechanism of control over emigrés." She said that Cubans who have defected while on overseas missions and "balseros" — migrants who fled Cuba on rafts — have been targets of this measure in the past.
"Since July 11, it's been much more common for people who have made criticisms on social media," she added.
A month after those protests, Cuba's Ministry of Communications issued Resolution 105, which allows the government to treat criticisms of officials on social media as cyberattacks.
The Cuban government is sensitive to the fact that criticism by Cubans outside of Cuba is increasingly filtering back into Cuba via social media.
"After the 11 of July, the state implemented a series of norms that enable it to track the comments of its citizens and keep them under electronic vigilance," said Diversent. "Canada, since July 11, has been one of the countries where Cuban exiles have been most active on social networks."
No redress, no appeal
Glenda Corella Cespedes was one of those Cuban-Canadians who was inspired to speak out by the events of July 11, 2021.
She came to Canada in 2012, when the Cuban government finally agreed to her request to leave the country, made eight years earlier.
"For a long time I was quiet. I just got on with my life," she said, adding she became more active after witnessing the events of that day.
"Just for shouting for freedom, for shouting we want to eat, completely defenceless persons who didn't have even a stick or a stone to defend themselves were attacked by the police and by a minority that serves that government to oppress the people," she said.
She said she has no intention of asking the Cuban government to review its decision. In any event, said Diversent, there is no mechanism to do so.
"They have discretion with no limits, there is no judicial supervision," she said. "If they deny me entry, there is no way for me to make a claim before a tribunal, and no way my family in Cuba can start a proceeding to go against that decision."
A family held 'hostage'
Diversent herself has been subject to the same prohibition ever since the Cuban government caused her legal rights organization, Cubalex, to dissolve in 2016 and forced her into exile a year later. CBC News spoke to her in San Jose, Costa Rica.
"It's been five years since I've been allowed to physically hug my mother," she said.
Diversent said agents of State Security (Seguridad del Estado) have visited her mother on three occasions to get her to pressure her daughter to give up her activities, using both carrots (the offer of necessary surgery) and sticks (threats of being prosecuted over her daughter's activism).
"This control is over all aspects of life," she said. "The exile who starts to criticize is conscious that if they do that, they may not be able to return, and that is the cost.
"How then will you be able to take medicine to your family? It's a real dilemma, above all because it's as if they have your family hostage."
As a country that produces and exports little, Cuba depends heavily on foreign currency from international tourists, as well as remittances sent by Cubans living and working overseas.
Its government is struggling financially after three pandemic years that severely reduced the number of visitors. It also experienced a severe decline in remittances after the Trump administration tightened the U.S. embargo against the country and Western Union offices on the island closed. Agricultural production has been declining for years, leading to a need to import more food.
Tourists are now returning and Western Union's offices have reopened, but the island remains in crisis, with food shortages and frequent blackouts.
Canadian dollars critical to Cuban government
Some Cuban-Canadians believe they are experiencing more pressure from the Cuban government because it is nervous about a campaign by activists here to persuade Canadians to stop travelling to the country and staying in hotels and resorts that belong to the Cuban government and armed forces.
The first two months of 2023 saw over a quarter of a million Canadians enter Cuba, five times as many arrivals as Cubans themselves, and more than ten times as many as the next-largest group of foreigners, U.S. citizens.
Any significant decline in Canadian tourism could threaten the ability of the Cuban Communist Party to pay bills and maintain its one-party rule.
Glenda Corella Cespedes said that, despite the order banning her from her former country, she doesn't intend to be silent and has continued to post her views about the situation in Cuba on social media.
She said she doesn't expect to return as long as one-party rule continues on the island, as it has for the past 63 years.
"I feel sorry for my mother. I feel sorry for my father, for my sister, for my brother, for my cousin, friends, everybody," she said.
"But it's not possible I go back."