“Of course, I dream of seeing my children again, but for the moment it is not possible. We call each other, we write to each other and we support each other, even if we are hundreds of kilometers away from each other. ‘other”, says Roberto Casanueva.
The Cuban national is currently based in Lithuania, having lived in Belarus for 30 years. “My eldest daughter was born in Cuba in 1989 and we only stayed there for a short time. Then my wife and child moved to Belarus and I joined them there a year later. I worked as a graphic designer and took care of my three children”, he recalls.
“Scandalized by the widespread electoral fraud”
Casanueva was appalled by the August 2020 presidential election, which saw President Alexander Lukashenko claim victory and was widely seen as fraudulent. Like many in Belarus, he took to the streets and joined opposition protests.
“I had been outraged by the widespread voter fraud in the 2000 election. I got an election notice in the mail at the time and laughed, because how can they invite me to vote in elections when I’m not even a Belarusian citizen? I thought it must be a mistake, but it kept happening,” he says.
During the 2020 election, friends said they saw his name on a list of eligible voters at one of the polling stations. Casanueva is convinced his fictitious vote was for Lukashenko. This bothered him and he refused to remain silent any longer.
“My residence permit expired in 2020, and I applied for an extension. The Citizenship and Migration Office put a paper in front of me with several clauses,” he says. “When I asked what they meant, because I didn’t speak the language, they said that I had no right to participate in demonstrations and that my residence permit would be revoked and that I would be expelled to Cuba if I continued to participate in them.”
Casanueva initially refused to sign the document and said he would continue to protest. This led to the revocation of his residence permit, as well as his papers. “I went back a few days later and they presented me with the same paper to sign again. I signed it thinking it was just a formality and I could keep going to protests” , he says.
Casanueva was eager to take part in protests against Lukashenko’s regime
Conditions of detention “a real test for me”
But in November 2020, shortly before another protest, Casanueva was arrested and detained for 15 days. His residence permit having been revoked, the authorities were preparing to deport him. “My arrest was illegal because the protests hadn’t even started yet. Nobody was there and I was just there smoking. I didn’t have any symbols or flags with me. Nevertheless, a van stopped next to me and I was put in by the riot police,” he recalled.
Casanueva spent more than a year in the notorious Okrestina detention center in the capital, Minsk, waiting to be deported. A large number of opposition protesters were beaten and tortured at the facility. “It was a real test for me. I was in a cell with other foreigners, but they weren’t political prisoners. They were all very different. Some were good and some were bad, but you had to get along with everyone.”
He says the conditions in the cells were terrible. “There was no electricity there. Coffee, tea, sugar, cigarettes – nothing was allowed,” he says. “Once a week you were allowed to receive a parcel, but for a month and a half they stopped giving me my family’s parcels.” He received nothing of the food, toothpaste, cigarettes and toilet paper they sent him.
Sent to Moscow as a “tourist”
In December 2021, employees of the Citizenship and Migration Department put Casanueva on a plane bound for Moscow. He was banned from entering Belarus for a period of three years, when there were three children. “I was sent to Moscow as a suspected tourist because there were no direct flights from Minsk to Cuba,” he says. “But after four or five days, the Russian Interior Ministry database found evidence that I had been expelled.”
As a deportee, he was unable to obtain a work visa for Russia. “I only had 30 days to fix things,” he said.
Before her deportation, Casanueva was able to say goodbye to her son at Minsk airport
Following his expulsion, a farewell photo with his young son appeared on social media. “I wasn’t really thinking about the photos at the time. The photo was very emotional and wasn’t staged. I hadn’t seen my son for over a year,” Casanueva says. He said he was very worried at this point and needed to reassure his son that everything would be fine.
“I wanted my voice to be heard”
A month later, Casanueva finds herself in Vilnius thanks to the Belarusian Solidarity Foundation, BYSOL. He does not want to return to Cuba under any circumstances.
“Cuba is exactly the same regime as Belarus, only worse,” he says. Thanks to Freedom House, an American non-profit association, he was able to obtain a Lithuanian visa for humanitarian reasons. Casanueva says he is grateful for the help given to persecuted Belarusians and others.
He now works as a graphic designer in Lithuania. Despite everything he has had to endure over the past year, he still says he does not regret having supported the Belarusian protest movement.
“I wanted to express my opinions and protest against what was happening in Belarus,” he says. “If we talk about things I regret, the only thing I regret is that I did so little. I wish I had done more.”
This article was adapted from German