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Cuban activists applaud U.S. decision to exclude Cuba from Summit of the Americas

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

World leaders have started to arrive in Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americas. The Biden administration, or rather the United States, is the host, and so the U.S. invites the participants. It chose this year to leave Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua off the list, saying that they do not respect democracy. In Cuba, free speech advocates applauded that snub because of a crackdown on dissent. NPR's Carrie Kahn is in Havana.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Daniela Rojo says she didn't used to consider herself an activist. The 26-year-old single mother of two small kids said she tweeted and complained, like most Cubans, on Facebook. Then last July 11, when protests broke out around Cuba, she, too, took to the streets. And like hundreds that day, she was arrested.

DANIELA ROJO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "After my arrest on July 11 and spending 23 days in prison, that's when I got motivated to do more," she says. She joined attempts to organize another nationwide march last November, but it was shut down. I've only ever talked to Rojo by phone. In Havana, we agreed to meet in person.

We had scheduled a time to meet at a cafe in Havana Vieja, an Old Havana neighborhood cafe, but it doesn't look like she was able to get here. I've been waiting more than an hour.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Outside the cafe, where ice cream vendors stroll down the narrow streets, I get a brief text. I've been told not to give interviews this week; thanks for understanding, she writes.

Independent journalist Cynthia de la Cantera is 32 years old and part of a new generation of journalists and activists. She says fear is real now in Cuba.

CYNTHIA DE LA CANTERA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Especially when every day, someone is brought in for questioning or fines," she says. De la Cantera got a 3,000 peso fine - about $125 at the official rate - for posting subversive content on social media. She works for the investigative news blog YucaByte and has repeatedly been questioned by police.

DE LA CANTERA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I just feel like I'm always being followed," she chuckles nervously. "The harassment has caused me so much stress."

Following the unprecedented protests last July, the government rounded up hundreds and handed down long prison sentences. They also passed new laws against such things as provoking rebellion and insulting political leaders, says Ted Henken of Baruch College, who studies independent media in Cuba.

TED HENKEN: And those all are set up so that they can chill dissent, silence dissent, and either imprison or drive into exile the people who refuse to be quiet.

KAHN: Cuba's government says the new laws protect the social peace and stability of the nation. The government accuses the U.S. of financing and provoking protests. Last week, it released dozens of protesters and reduced sentences for others, especially teenagers and young adults. Meanwhile, some have found ways to continue working in Cuba.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "EL ENJAMBRE")

LUCIA MARCH: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LO MISMO ME DA")

RONKALUNGA: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: The creators of the weekly podcast "El Enjambre" don't shy away from criticism.

MARCH: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I believe that what is wrong is wrong, no matter where it occurs," says one of the hosts, Lucia March. But March and co-host Camilo Condis insist they're not journalists, and their podcast is not news.

CAMILO CONDIS: We're criticizing as any Cuban would do, as any Cuban would talk in their home, with their friends. That's what we're doing, you know?

KAHN: For others, though, the choice now is to be quiet. Cynthia de la Cantera of YucaByte says she's taking a break from journalism. For some, the choice is more stark.

ROJO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: I finally heard from Daniela Rojo, the single-mom-turned-activist. She called from Germany, where she has asked for asylum. She was facing five years in prison in Cuba - five years away from her children.

ROJO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: And like most activists who have taken the same deal, she was told she could never return to Cuba.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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