The son of a Cuban immigrant, Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said that he hoped President-elect Donald Trump could press for change for Cubans following Fidel Castro’s death.
But in a Nov. 27 interview on ABC’s This Week, Cruz expressed some skepticism that anything will be better under Castro’s brother Raúl Castro, who began taking over in 2006.
"What the Obama administration has done is strengthen Raúl Castro. Raúl is the dictator now," Cruz said. "You know, I asked my dad at dinner last night, what do you think happens now that Fidel is dead? And he shrugged and said Raúl has been in power for years. The system has gotten stronger. ... You know, in 2015 roughly 10,000 political arrests occurred in Cuba. That is five times as many as occurred in 2010, when there were only about 2,000."
We were interested in his statistic, so we contacted Cruz’s office. Spokesman Phil Novack told us the senator slightly misspoke, but his point is still basically accurate.
Political arrests in Cuba
Novack told PolitiFact Florida that Cruz meant to compare the number of political arrests in Cuba in 2010 to 2016 rather than 2015.
Cruz’s primary source was the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. Based in Havana, the commission is the island’s oldest and most respected non-government, human-rights monitoring group, according to the Miami Herald, a PolitiFact Florida partner.
The commission reported 2,074 politically motivated detentions in 2010. That escalated to 8,600 in 2015 and then to 9,125 through October 2016.
The commission predicts the number of political arrests "will exceed the level of 10,000 detentions" through the end of 2016.
Experts on Cuba say the commission founded by Elizardo Sánchez has the most reliable source of data and sometimes use it in combination with other sources.
That said, the data comes with caveats.
"It's very hard to work with exact numbers in Cuba," said Pedro Alcántara, spokesman for the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, based in Miami. "Not only are we fighting very strong repression, but sometimes the data changes every day."
The Cuban regime uses a revolving door for arresting political prisoners — most being held for hours or sometimes a couple of days and often facing violence while detained. In some cases, the prisoners are released without being charged.
The commission has been able to report on short arrests, said Florida International University political science professor Eduardo Gamarra.
"However, the accuracy of his data is also arguable since there is no 'official' acknowledgment that political prisoners exist in Cuba," he said. "Having said that, it is quite possible that the number of short-term arrests is higher or that it is quite lower."
Some pro-regime groups criticize the list of the commission, alleging it contains multiple arrests of the same individuals within the same year.
Carlos Ponce, director of Latin America programs at the watchdog group Freedom Press, said he doesn’t know if that is true or not since it is impossible to audit the list. The commission was founded by Elizardo Sánchez, a Cuban human rights campaigner.
"But at the same time, the list only covers the cases reported to Elizardo's group, so you can say that there are many cases unreported," he said.
There is some dispute about how to define political prisoners, raising questions of overcounting. In 2010, for example, the Associated Press vetted a list of 167 political prisoners by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. About 50 people on the list "were convicted of terrorism, hijacking or other violent crimes, and four are former military or intelligence agents convicted of espionage or revealing state secrets," according to the AP.
Why arrests have increased
While settling on a precise figure of political arrests each year is a daunting task, experts agreed that in general the numbers have risen since 2010.
Obama’s announcement in 2014 that the United States would reopen ties with Cuba did not lead to less political repression on the island.
Sánchez, the creator of the commission’s list, told Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer in July that that the civil and political rights situation had worsened over the past year.
"In terms of (Cuba’s) domestic politics, the reestablishment of ties hasn’t had any positive impact," he said.
More Cubans feel emboldened to express their discontent with the regime, even as the government sends more dissenters behind bars, said Marselha Gonçalves Margerin, advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International, a group that was last allowed into Cuba in 1989. Unless the criminal code is changed, which is unlikely to happen any time soon, the strengthened crackdown will continue, she said.
"We are seeing people going out on the streets that didn’t go before," she told PolitiFact Florida.
Sebastian A. Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said there was a shift in the Castro regime from targeted, long-term, politically motivated imprisonment to more frequent and often violent short-term detentions lasting from hours to days.
"The obvious goal is to avoid the international condemnation that follows long-term political prisoners, and to prevent dissident public activities to escalate into larger demonstration," Arcos said. "As they say, the revolution cannot afford to lose the streets."
Cruz said, "In 2015 roughly 10,000 political arrests occurred in Cuba. That is five times as many as occurred in 2010, when there were only about 2,000."
Cruz’s point about the rise of political arrests happening amid improved diplomacy with the United States is basically right.
He would have been on more precise ground had he referred to 2016 and not 2015, as a spokesman said he intended to do. And while the source of his figures is widely considered to be reliable, experts said it is hard to track and label every arrest for political reasons.
Because his point requires additional explanation but is largely accurate, we rate this claim Mostly True.