MIAMI – Activist José Daniel Ferrer García made his desperate appeal at hand.
"On hunger strike and thirst," Ferrer, one of Cuba's best-known dissidents, scribbled piece of paper smuggled out of prison. "They did everything to me."
Ferrer, 49, has been in jail since October 1 for what human rights activists say is a violent attack and a battery case. In his note, he described being dragged, handcuffed by his hands and feet and left in his underwear for two weeks to be bitten by mosquitoes and the cold of the morning.
"My life is in grave danger," he warned.
Ferrer's arrest renews the spotlight on Cuba and how far it goes against President Miguel Díaz-Canel's dissidents. Nineteen months after taking office, amid high hopes of reform in Cuba and abroad, Diaz-Canel leads a government that bears a striking resemblance to the preceding Castro dynasty, critics say.
"We don't think power has changed hands," said Javier Larrondo of Defenders of Prisoners, a defense group in Spain that closely follows the case of Ferrer. "The power is in the same hands."
In a sign of how seriously the Cuban government is reacting to international condemnation, particularly after the fall of Evo Morales's presidency in Bolivia, the Cuban government published this weekend 10 minutes. video This is intended to show Mr. Ferrer banging his head on a table while in custody, suggesting that his wounds were self-inflicted. The government says the US government has orchestrated a "lying campaign" about the case.
Even the famous blogger Yoani Sánchez heavy, saying the video was detrimental to Ferrer and his movement. His family and supporters have responded by pointing out several ways in which what the government has presented as an exhibition appears to be manipulated and argue that the shirtless man who hits his face is not him.
The US State Department said its top diplomat met Ferrer and other dissidents in pursuit of human rights.
"The Castro regime's first resort is to dust off obsolete points of what should have been a bygone era and describe any independent voices as mercenaries, subversives and spies," a State Department spokesman said in a statement.
Since taking office, Diaz-Canel has tried unsuccessfully to improve living conditions amid widespread gas shortages and US sanctions. While Cuba has expanded Internet access, allowing Cubans with the new 3G mobile service to post bold social media complaints, Ferrer's case has come to represent what can happen when they complain too much, especially because Internet access gives rise to a new independent media class.
Ferrer was in prison for almost two months when his family was notified of the formal charge against him. The announcement came after criticism of his arrest from across the political spectrum in the United States, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The European Parliament last week adopted a joint resolution calling for its "immediate release".
In a very unusual way declaration In the Communist Party's official newspaper, Granma, the Cuban government described Ferrer as a "salaried agent serving the United States" with a history of beating his wives. His former partners have posted videos denying the latest accusation.
As a community organizer, Ferrer, who is from Santiago de Cuba in the east of the country, helped collect thousands of signatures for the Varela Project, a referendum that calls for greater political freedom that was presented to the Cuban National Assembly in 2002. movement, Oswaldo Payá, died in a car accident 10 years later. Many believe he was murdered.
Ferrer was caught in the 2003 crackdown by the Black Spring dissent and served eight years in prison. He was one of the few members of a group of 75 political prisoners who turned down 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 the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. "My sense is that is precisely why they fear this guy more than anyone else."
Ferrer left prison to found the Cuban Patriotic Union, known as UNPACU. The organization stood out by taking advantage of social discontent over Cuba's frequent food shortages and other difficulties.
"He has a food center where he has lunch for the elderly and the disabled," said Martha Beatriz Roque, a senior dissident near Ferrer. "The dictatorship does not agree with this because it implies leadership."
Over the past two years, dozens of dissidents have gone into exile, including several who met President Barack Obama in Havana in 2016 and all 13 members of a group of lawyers called Cubalex. The exodus left anti-government activists without legal assistance.
"I think we opponents are not having our best moment," Roque said.
Human rights defenders say that Cuba has about 100 political prisoners and that the number of arbitrary detentions each month dropped almost half after Díaz-Canel took office in April 2018. But that decline, Vivanco said, is largely reflected. This is partly because there are fewer dissidents left in Cuba to be detained.
Ferrer and three colleagues were arrested on October 1 and charged with kicking a man in the head until he lost consciousness. Ferrer's friends and family say they have proof The man was injured in a motorcycle accident, despite what they call fabricated testimony to the contrary.
Nelva Ortega said her husband Ferrer was beaten and lost a lot of weight during the 25-day hunger strike, which began after he was convinced that he was receiving contaminated water and food and has since ended. He declined to wear a prisoner's uniform and was undressed for weeks, 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 you to drink," Ortega said in a telephone interview a few days after her first visit to him. "The food seemed to be ready to be thrown away, like the food you would give the pigs."
In a letter to the United Nations, the Cuban government said charges of torture were lies.
Alan P. Gross, a former Maryland contractor who spent five years in prison in Cuba, said that while the notion that Ferrer lost half his body weight was probably an exaggeration, it was customary for prisoners to receive infested meals. ants or cockroaches.
"I lost 70 pounds the moment my case went to trial," Gross said. "I thought Diaz-Canel would be better because he was not part of the family and never had a military background."
The president, he said, is probably not entirely in charge, as Raúl Castro is still head of the Cuban Communist Party.
"I had high hopes for him," said Gross. "I still have hope for him."
The Cuban government, which generally does not respond to media inquiries, has not responded to requests for comments left with its embassy in Washington and the prosecutor's communications office.
Although Cubans approved a new constitution earlier this year, the changes contained therein have not resulted in significant political changes. The biggest transformation in Cuba came after the Diaz-Canel government allowed 3G service: more Cubans complained online about police abuse, and when Diaz-Canel visited a tornado-stricken community in February, residents attacked it while others filmed him running away. The remarkable scene was practically unimaginable years ago.
The president is also facing tough challenges from Washington. The Trump administration imposed a series of sanctions, choking off its fuel supply and restricting travel.
Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat and academic in Havana, said Díaz-Canel had been too slow to take measures to strengthen the economy, but disputed that repression of government critics was a problem.
"No one is imprisoned in Cuba because of their opinions, no matter what people think," Alzugaray said. “Succeeding to Fidel and Raúl is not easy. When you are the guardian of a legacy, you have a problem: there is expectation of change and expectation of continuity. "