A prominent animal rights activist in central Santa Clara, Cuba, accused the Communist Party this week of poisoning her pet dogs, and repeatedly killing stray dogs prior to visits by Cuba’s second-in-command, Miguel Díaz-Canel.
The case highlights Communist Party abuses against those who critique even niche parts of its political platform like its mistreatment of animals — not just those who openly call for the end of communism. The incident has caused widespread outrage in the Cuban-American community in the United States. Rep. María Elvira Salazar (R-FL) shared the story on Tuesday, calling it “absolutely shameful.”
In Castro’s #Cuba even those who dare to speak up about Animal Rights & Animal Welfare are relentlessly persecuted.
Animal rights activist, Leydi Laura, just had her dogs POISONED by Castro’s State Security agents.
— María Elvira Salazar 🇺🇸 (@MaElviraSalazar) February 2, 2021
Leidy Laura Hernández is the founder of the first animal refuge in Santa Clara and regularly use Facebook to organize animal rescue operations throughout central Cuba. Her husband, Omar Mena, is a dissident rapper who uses music to criticize the regime, making them both targets. Mena was last arrested on January 29; Cuban dissidents regularly face arbitrary arrests and police detentions, often never being told what crime they allegedly committed. Hernández herself has become a target for using her group to condemn instances of animal abuse by the state.
Hernández told the independent outlet ADN Cuba on Sunday that someone had poisoned two of her dogs, killing one and leaving the other in critical condition at a veterinary facility. She believes it is the work of state security officials.
“Yesterday, a fake Facebook profile threatened me with poisoning the dogs,” she told the outlet, amid tears. “By the time I woke up in the morning, one of the dogs was already dead and we called the vet, and now there is another one who is dying on me now. She [the veterinarian] is trying to do what she can, but she is pretty bad. I can’t anymore. They are just like my family, the same. I don’t know what to do anymore, I can’t anymore. I’m very scared that they will keep doing this.”
Hernández did not indicate that local police authorities were helping her in any way or investigating the incident.
Prior to the alleged threats and poisonings, Hernández had denounced the government, claiming neighborhood dogs regularly disappeared or were found poisoned shortly before Díaz-Canel, who answers to dictator Raúl Castro but holds the official title of “president,” visited Santa Clara.
“Whenever President Díaz-Canel visits, they round up the animals and they take them to kill them,” Hernández told Radio Martí last month. “I can’t say, ‘I saw someone with a government ID spreading poison’ … [but] it’s always the same story. Every time Díaz-Canel visits Santa Clara, the night before they either round up the dogs and take them elsewhere, or they poison them on the street like they did this time.”
Following the initial report, ADN Cuba reported Tuesday that other animal rights activists had begun sharing similar stories of their animals being mysteriously killed off. A group called Manos y Corazón (“Hands and Heart”) in central Trinidad, Cuba, stated their animals had endured “direct attacks.” They noted multiple instances of cats in their rescue care being poisoned. In one particular message on Twitter they posted graphic photos of a recently rescued cat and her kittens, who were all found dead of poisoning the morning after being rescued.
“We don’t know the causes, the motives, or the objective of this. We will find those responsible,” the group asserted in a statement on Twitter.
Animal rights activists join a growing number of members of civil society including professors, rappers, poets, intellectuals, and others not engaged in traditional anti-communist activism that nonetheless find themselves targeted by government repression. In Havana, a group calling itself the San Isidro Movement prompted the largest protest in decades in November, attracting hundreds to stage a sit-in in front of the Cuban Ministry of Culture in response to a raid on the San Isidro Movement’s headquarters. Police attacked the group of unarmed artists and intellectuals, many of whom were on hunger strike, allegedly due to concerns about the Chinese coronavirus pandemic. The group had begun the hunger strike on behalf of a member, rapper Denis Solís, who a communist court sentenced to eight months in prison for filming a police officer entering his home illegally.
In the aftermath of the Ministry of Culture sit-in, Mena, Hernández’s spouse, attempted to organize a similar peaceful event in Santa Clara. Mena publishes music under the alias “El Analista” (“the analyst”) that criticizes human rights abuses by the regime. In December, shortly after his call to organize, Mena disappeared. He resurfaced after his police abduction in his home, but surrounded by state security agents until the time at which he had called for dissidents to convene had passed.
Since the November Ministry of Culture sit-in, activists have repeatedly attempted to pressure the government to ease restrictions on individual rights. The Ministry of Culture became a target in part because of Solís’s conviction, but more prominently because of a recent law passed known as Decree 349, which makes it illegal to create any work of art — a song, a screenplay, a painting — without a prior permit from the Communist Party.
A protest once again convened before the Ministry of Culture last week. This time, instead of ordering state security agents to attack the protesters, Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso himself physically assaulted a journalist filming the protest. Others at the event caught the incident on video, triggering widespread, but ignored, calls for Alonso’s resignation.