Cuban journalist Camila Acosta was arrested after covering protests on July 11. (Cubanet)

Camila Acosta speaks from house arrest about covering Cuba’s historic protests

“I am not free, but at least I am out of the dungeons,” Camila Acosta told CPJ via messaging app after her release to house arrest on July 16 following a four-day detention for covering the recent protests in Cuba.

Acosta, who is based in Havana, covered protests on July 11 for the Cuban independent digital outlet Cubanet on Facebook Live and for the Spanish daily ABC. The following day, she was detained by officers of the National Revolutionary Police (PNR) and sent to the 4th Station of the PNR, in Havana. At least other 10 journalists have been detained in the aftermath of the protests, and today at least one remains behind bars, CPJ has confirmed with sources on the ground.

Demonstrations calling for freedom and an end to the country’s communist government, as well as economic relief in the wake of COVID-19, erupted in Cuba on July 11, starting in the city of San Antonio de los Baños, before expanding to several areas of the country.

The protests, which were called the largest in Cuba in decades by the media, saw demonstrators chanting “Homeland and Life,” the name of a subversive Cuban hip-hop song that became the anthem of the Cuban uprising and is a response to the Cuban regime’s communist slogan “Homeland or Death.”

The crackdown on the press was immediate, with authorities detaining journalists, forbidding reporters from leaving their homes, and interrupting access to the internet and social media platforms, as CPJ has documented.

Acosta, who is still under investigation for public disorder, spoke with CPJ about her coverage of the protests and the consequences she has faced. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

CPJ emailed the National Revolutionary Police, the Ministry of the Interior, and ETECSA, the Cuban telecommunications regulator, for comment, but did not receive any responses. 

What did you see on July 11 when the protests began? What were you able to report on?

On that day, I went to Old Havana to report on what was happening, and I recorded everything with my cell phone, and the videos were posted online by Cubanet. I got to the Cuban Radio and TV Institute [outside of which people were protesting] and saw that authorities were already detaining people. I kept walking, made it to the capitol and saw large gatherings of people. I covered the protests in front of the capitol and in front of the Spanish embassy. I interviewed those protesting, who were chanting “Homeland and Life,” and also some chanting “Homeland or Death.” What I saw was a peaceful protest. I decided to leave once I saw that the authorities were becoming more violent toward the protestors.

What happened after you covered the protest?

The following day, on July 12, I had left home with my father to accompany him to run an errand and as we were walking police officers from the National Revolutionary Police in a patrol car stopped and arrested me. All they said was, “Camila Acosta you are under arrest.” There was no judicial order, no explanation. Nothing. They made me get inside the car and drove me to the detention center.

Later that day, state security agents went to the apartment where I lived, which I was renting, and raided the place and confiscated all of my working materials. They took away my laptop, several memory drives, a tripod, a cellphone, everything.

What happened during your detention?

I spent four days in detention, first in the 4th Station of the PNR, and then I was transferred to the 10th Station of the PNR and was subjected to several long interrogations by different state security agents. I had two interrogations per day. They asked all types of questions, including some about my work as a journalist. They wanted to know for whom I worked, and how much and how I got paid. I refused to answer these questions. The interrogations are always aimed at making you stop reporting. It is a form of manipulation. They asked why I did not leave Cuba.

They also asked questions of a personal or intimate nature, others about my political views, including what I thought about the protests and why I thought Cuba was a dictatorship.

Though at first they told me I was not accused of anything, during the interrogation I was told I was being investigated for public disorder. However, they had told my father that I was being investigated for crimes against state security.

What were the conditions during your detention?

I was not allowed to make a phone call, nor have access to a lawyer or family members. I refused to eat and only drank water for the first 48 hours, and then later accepted food because I wanted to be conscious of what was happening. At first, I was alone in a cell, and I slept on cement because the mattress provided was disgusting. Afterward they transferred me to another cell, and I shared the cell with five other women, a terribly crowded cell with no ventilation and no sunlight. It was extremely hot. We were almost half naked inside the cell because of the heat, and we felt we were suffocating. They would bring people in and out, without any COVID safety measure, and I complained.

We had to use the bathroom and shower without any privacy, in front of the other detainees. It was terribly disgusting.

The majority of the other detainees were there under suspicion of having participated in the protests.

How and when were you released into house arrest?

I was released from the detention center on Friday July 16. The day before, state security agents had tried to have me sign an agreement to pay a fine in order to be released, and I refused. The following day they said I had been imposed with a house arrest measure, and I also refused to sign that order. They released me [to house arrest] around 10:00 a.m. They never gave me back my phone.

They said I was still under investigation for public disorder, which could take six months, and that my belongings would remain confiscated. They added that they could request an extension with the prosecutor’s office if by then they are not done with the investigation, which means that they will not return my belongings.

What is your current situation?

I am under house arrest, and under surveillance. There are at least six or seven agents outside keeping watch, some on foot and some in a patrol car. I cannot leave my home. I am staying with a friend, because I was evicted after the agents raided the apartment I was renting.

I was not provided a document explaining my legal situation, but the officer who told me I was being sent to house arrest said that they would allow me to leave my place if I need to buy groceries.

They also said I could hire a lawyer, but when I asked for a copy of my file or at least the file number they said, “You still don’t have a file.” And I asked, “How come I don’t have a file if you say I am under investigation?” But they did not respond.

What happens now to your work as a journalist?

I was very clear with them. I told them, “I will keep going to the streets and doing journalism,” and I think that is why I am under surveillance from state security.

I cannot report in the streets because I cannot go outside.

Someone lent me a cellphone and I have been able to contact several sources who are telling me what the situation is in the different quarters, what the situation is for those who are still detained. I hope I can find a laptop soon so I can resume working. That is the work of the press. I have a commitment.

The internet is very slow. You need to use a VPN [virtual private network] because there is no direct access. I cannot just call people, because they will trace the call and get them in trouble for speaking with me and the authorities will then block that line.

Also, because they took away my phone I lost all of my contacts.

Based on your reporting, why are Cubans protesting?

They are protesting as a result of all the frustration for many decades. This is unprecedented in the country. That day [July 11] Cuba made a radical turn toward change — it had been in the process of changing for a while. Even though the authorities have tried to repress and silence through fear, this will not end here. There are mothers that don’t know where their relatives are; they are disappeared. This won’t stop.

Why do you think Cuban authorities detained you and other journalists?

Because we were reporting. The police had already warned me before that they would send me to prison if I kept reporting. It’s not just me. More than 40 journalists were attacked in some way or another that day.

We have access to information, and access to sources. Those sources ask to remain anonymous, but we can convey the information. And thanks to social media we can share the information and remain connected.

Why do you want to keep working as a journalist?

This is what I have studied and have trained to do. This is my job. I am not going to go silent because this regime is repressing and threatening me. Silencing ourselves or putting our heads down is not an option. The independent press needs to keep denouncing injustice by revealing it in reporting. All those people detained whose names are still unknown depend on us to have their stories told and to be their voices, and tell the world what is happening in Cuba. One of my colleagues at Cubanet, Orelvis Cabrera, who was arrested the same day, is still detained.

What will help us to free the rest of the journalists detained and harassed is to make our situation visible. That is the only protection we have in the face of so much abuse from the Cuban regime.

Editor’s note: The name of the area Acosta went to on July 11 to report has been corrected in the ninth paragraph.