How an Environmentalist Ended Up in a Cuban Jail
Ariel Ruiz Urquiola is an internationally-recognized Cuban biologist whose commitment to his profession recently landed him in jail. He’s also been harassed and thrown out of a job. Why is a skilled and committed individual like him persecuted by his government? Ariel’s story tells a lot about the Cuban government and how it deals with any perceived challenge to its rule.
Ariel was fired from his position at the University of Havana two years ago on spurious grounds after gaining the reputation of a troublemaker when he spoke out about the illegal fishing of sea turtles, and later undertook a hunger strike to try to get cancer medication for his sister Omara. After losing his university job, Ariel requested the usage of a piece of rural land in usufruct (a sort of long-term loan from the government, which owns most agricultural land in Cuba). After a year his request was granted, and he began to produce fruit and coffee and to reforest the land with native tree species, which also serves the purpose of restoring the native animal species.
Ariel’s concrete conservation efforts made him begin noticing the failings of the state-run environmental organizations. “The Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment does not really function,” said his sister Omara in an interview with VOC. “We denounced the lack of attention on the part of these authorities that ought to fight for ecological values, but don’t. From that point on, we and our land began to attract public attention… For example, with reference to the illegal hunting of hutias, one day he discovered 83 illegal traps on the property. He gathered all the traps and brought them to the authorities and they did nothing. That’s his activism. He turned them over to the authorities, and they did nothing. And so he questioned their authority.”
At this point, Ariel began to experience police harassment relating to his rural land: “They tried other legal strategies, like accusing him of pruning trees without permission. But it wasn’t true and they couldn’t prove it, because Ariel had the documentation. When they tried to send him to prison he produced the documents. At this point Ariel began to be identified by the authorities as someone who would fight back.”
On May 3, two officials arrived on Ariel’s land. “They were trying to provoke him,” says Omara. “They clearly had a mission.” When Ariel demanded that they prove who they were, they arrested him on the grounds that he had committed “contempt” by calling them “rural guards,” a term once used to refer to tyrannical Batista-era officials. Ariel was sentenced to two years in prison, but after two months, he was released on “extrapenal license” after going on a hunger strike. Now, like so many Cuban activists, the government is keeping him in a legal twilight state.
When asked if her brother is an “activist,” Omara demurs: “I don’t know: He works alone, and what he does stems from his commitment to his profession.” “We come from a family that was always interested in nature and biology,” she says. Ariel and Omara’s mother is a biology professor, and their uncle was a botanist who founded the botanical garden in Pinar del Río province. Both at the University of Havana and in this summer’s
Environmental advocacy would seem to be an apolitical form of civic activity—but, as Omara says, “the authorities don’t see it that way.” “By taking part in environmental activism, you are putting the spotlight on the official environmental institutions. You are confronting the people who ought to be working for the environment but aren’t doing so—namely, a government institution.”
Cuba suffers from a variety of environmental issues, including the pollution of surface waters and bays, soil degradation, especially because of mining, and erosion. Many of these problems stem from the gigantism, central planning, and inefficiency of its Soviet-style economy.
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