Attacks on the Press 2000: Cuba

IN A COUNTRY WHOSE CONSTITUTION AND PENAL CODE specifically disallow press freedom, independent journalists continued to face repression from the Cuban government last year. Yet their ranks have grown steadily, and there are now about 20 independent news agencies in the country. In early 2001, a particularly courageous independent journalist saw the outside of a jail for the first time in two years.

Jesús Joel Díaz Hernández was unexpectedly released from prison on January 17, 2001. The executive director of the independent news service Cooperativa Avileña de Periodistas Independientes (CAPI) began a four-year prison sentence in 1999, after a one-day sham trial in which he was convicted of “dangerousness,” a crime unknown outside Cuba.

In July, Díaz Hernández’s family smuggled a urine sample out of prison, which revealed that the journalist was suffering from hepatitis. Prison authorities failed to provide him with proper medical treatment. That same month, guards confiscated Díaz Hernández’s books and forbade his relatives from bringing him any more.

Just after the release, CPJ wrote to President Fidel Castro Ruz welcoming the news, but noting also that Díaz Hernández can be jailed again if he returns to work as an independent journalist. The letter stated that CPJ had “no illusions about the measures your government will take to suppress independent journalism.” It also called on Castro to free two other independent journalists, Manuel Antonio González Castellanos and Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, who were both jailed for allegedly expressing disrespect for Castro.

Arévalo Padrón, founder of the Línea Sur Press news agency in the province of Cienfuegos, has been in jail since 1997. González Castellanos, correspondent for the independent news agency CubaPress in the eastern province of Holguín, has been in jail since 1998. Both journalists have been denied medical treatment as well as parole.

During 2000, repression against independent journalists intensified in the country’s eastern provinces, far from international media scrutiny. Luis Alberto Rivera Leyva, director of the independent agency Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental (APLO), was threatened, detained, and on one occasion placed under house arrest to prevent him from covering the trial of two dissidents. Juan Carlos Garcell, APLO correspondent in the eastern province of Holguín, was detained at least three times in August, one month after he reported that employees at a state-owned construction company had complained about their working conditions.

The government also continued to restrict independent journalists’ freedom of movement. In late November, the renowned journalist and writer Raúl Rivero was barred from traveling to the United States for an appearance at the Miami International Book Fair. Rivero, who is the director of CubaPress, did, however, address the fair by telephone and in a video filmed days before in Havana.

While the notorious Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy was not applied in 2000, authorities did use it to threaten independent journalists. Passed in 1999, the law makes it a crime to give information to the U.S. government (whether directly or indirectly), to collaborate with foreign media, or to possess, reproduce, or spread “subversive” documents.

Two incidents in August further underscored the government’s determination to block collaboration between Cuban independent journalists and their foreign colleagues. On August 17, state security agents detained French journalist Martine Jacot for more than an hour at Havana’s International Airport, just as she was about to return to France. The agents confiscated Jacot’s video camera and two tapes, along with research documents. Jacot had traveled to Cuba to meet with independent journalists as a representative of the press freedom organization Reporters Sans Frontières.

Almost two weeks later, the government detained and then expelled Swedish journalists Birger Thuresson, Peter Göetel, and Helena Söederqvist, who had participated in a seminar attended by local independent journalists.

The government continued to restrict Internet access under an ordinance imposed in June 1996, four months before Cuba was officially connected to the Internet. A government commission decides which individuals and institutions will have Internet access. So far, the commission has only granted connections to government officials, selected academic researchers, diplomats, tourists, and foreign entrepreneurs.

In early September, the government granted The Dallas Morning News and The Chicago Tribune permission to open bureaus in Havana, making them the first U.S. newspapers allowed into Cuba since The New York Times pulled out in the early 1960s. These two papers join CNN and The Associated Press as the only U.S. news organizations with permanent bureaus on the island. While this is a welcome development, other media outlets remain shut out, notably The Miami Herald, whose reporters are routinely denied visas to visit Cuba. Meanwhile, ordinary Cubans still do not have access to international media news about their own country.

On December 4, a group of Madrid-based Cuban exiles launched the online daily Encuentro en la Red ( The same group also publishes the popular quarterly magazine Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana. Early in 2000, the official press lashed out against the magazine, branding it a U.S. government front.

Víctor Rolando Arroyo, Unión de Periodistas y Escritores Cubanos Independientes

Arroyo, a journalist, author, and member of the Unión de Periodistas y Escritores Cubanos Independientes (UPECI), was jailed for six months for hoarding toys. His supporters contended that the charge came in retaliation for his reporting.

“Cuban authorities [often] charge journalists with common crimes to prevent them from becoming prisoners of conscience,” said Raúl Rivero, director of the independent news agency CubaPress. “Arroyo was reporting daily on the emerging civil society and on opposition activities in Pinar del Río.”

On January 8, police arrested Arroyo at his home in Pinar del Río, on the western tip of the island, CubaPress reported. They also searched his house and confiscated 150 toys that he had gathered for distribution to poor children under a program run by the humanitarian group Corriente Martiana.

At his trial, Arroyo’s lawyer produced receipts showing that all the toys had been bought legally at hard-currency shops. Nonetheless, Arroyo was found guilty on January 14 and given a six-month sentence.

Prior to his conviction, the journalist had specialized in covering stories overlooked by the official press, such as Cuba’s economic crisis and its effects on the province of Pinar del Río. He also reported on the Elián González case and criticized President Fidel Castro Ruz. His stories were published on the Web site CubaNet and broadcast on the U.S.-sponsored Radio Martí.

Arroyo was released on July 18 after completing his sentence. In a July 25 letter to President Castro, CPJ called for the immediate release of Cuba’s three remaining imprisoned journalists.

José Orlando González Bridón, Cuba Free Press

State security agents arrested González Bridón, a labor activist and a journalist with the U.S.-based news service Cuba Free Press, at his home in Havana.

The agents then took him to the Havana headquarters of the Department of Technical Investigations (DTI), the state security agency, where he was questioned and released the same day.

González Bridón later told Cuba Free Press that the DTI agents repeatedly questioned him about his reporting and threatened to charge him with libeling the Cuban state in violation of Law 88, or the Law for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy. The law carries prison terms of up to 20 years for press-related offenses. González Bridón also said that DTI agents threatened reprisals against his family.

On January 25, González Bridón’s wife reported, state security agents again arrested the journalist on his way to a meeting in downtown Havana with the opposition leaders Oswaldo Payá, Héctor Palacios, and Elizardo Sánchez. He was released some three hours later.

González Bridón has been writing articles for the Cuba Free Press Web site since October 1999. According to Cuba Free Press, the journalist was arrested five times between December 1, 1999 and January 31, 2000.

Luis Alberto Rivera Leyva, Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental

Rivera Leyva, director of the independent news agency Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental (APLO) in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, faced sustained harassment from the state security apparatus, in a campaign to intimidate independent journalists in the region.

On August 12, according to the independent news agency CubaPress, state security agents searched Rivera Leyva at the Santiago de Cuba bus terminal, in the eastern part of the island, as he was preparing to travel to Havana. Six days later, security agents detained him in Havana for five hours. The agents tried to recruit Rivera Leyva as an informer. When he rejected the offer, they warned him to stop working as an independent journalist.

Twenty days later, on September 7, state security agents again detained Rivera Leyva and took him to a military detention center at Santiago de Cuba airport, where the journalist was held for around 24 hours and was repeatedly interrogated. The agents warned Rivera Leyva that he could be prosecuted for working as an independent journalist. Prior to this latest detention, Rivera Leyva’s house had been under surveillance and he had been followed for several days, his colleagues told CubaPress.

On September 14, according to independent journalist Ricardo González Alfonso, state security officers prevented Rivera Leyva from entering Municipal Court No. 1, in the city of Santiago de Cuba, where the journalist was trying to cover the trial of a dissident. The officers warned Rivera Leyva that if he entered the courtroom with a camera or a tape recorder, he would face criminal charges.

Juan Carlos Garcell, Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental

Garcell, correspondent with the independent news agency Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental in the eastern province of Holguín, was detained three times in a week and threatened by state security officers in the city of Sagua de Tánamo.

The journalist skipped an August 15 summons, which he considered illegal. At 8 p.m., police agents detained him and took him to the police station, according to local sources. Before releasing Garcell later that evening, the head of the local State Security Department (DSE), known by the name “Alexis,” threatened to jail the journalist unless he collaborated with them.

Garcell refused to collaborate. On August 17, he was stopped in the street by state security agents and taken by car to the outskirts of Sagua de Tánamo, where he was met by a DSE officer named “Riquelme.” Officer “Riquelme” warned the journalist that he could be charged with spreading “enemy propaganda,” a crime that carries a one to eight-year prison sentence. Garcell was then taken back to Sagua de Tánamo and released.

The harassment was apparently provoked by an article titled “Exploitation of Man by the Socialist State-Capitalist Investor,” which was filed by Garcell on July 11. The article reported on labor conditions at a local nickel factory owned jointly by the Cuban government and a Canadian corporation in the municipality of Moa, Holguín Province.

On August 21, DSE agents again detained the journalist and took his fingerprints, after which he was released. At this time, he was also warned that he could be sent to jail.

Birger Thuresson, Nya Dagen
Peter Göetell, Sundsvalls Tidning
Helena Söederqvist, Arvika Nyheter

Thuresson, Göetell, and Söederqvist, three Swedish journalists visiting Havana, were detained for around 60 hours and expelled by Cuban authorities because of their contacts with members of the independent press.

At around 7 a.m. on August 29, security police detained the Swedish journalists at their guest house in the municipality of Centro Habana. They were taken to an immigration detention center, subjected to lengthy interrogation, and denied outside contact.

According to news wires, Thuresson worked for Nya Dagen, a small religious newspaper; Göetell for the daily Sundsvalls Tidning; and Söederqvist for Arvika Nyheter, a small regional newspaper.

Before their detention, the three journalists had met with Cuban independent journalists at a seminar on freedom of the press. The Cuban government accused the Swedish journalists of violating their tourist visas by engaging in journalistic work. Defending the government’s actions, Cuban foreign minister Felipe Pérez Roque told The Associated Press that the Swedish journalists had “been encouraging subversive acts, which contribute to the United States’ desperate attempts to develop internal subversion in Cuba.”

The visiting Swedes were sponsored by the Swedish International Liberal Center, an organization that promotes democracy. After the Swedish Embassy in Havana intervened, they were released and deported back to Stockholm on the evening of August 31.

On August 30, CPJ circulated a news alert about the case.

Jesús Hernández Hernández, HavanaPress
Jadir Hernández Hernández, HavanaPress

State security agents detained the Hernández brothers, both reporters for the independent news agency HavanaPress, for over three days in a small town outside Havana. Early in the morning of September 15, agents from the government’s Technical Department of Investigations (DTI) detained the brothers and took them to DTI offices in San José de Las Lajas, near Havana. The agents confiscated a typewriter, an electronic organizer, and manuscript articles written by the brothers, and accused them of smuggling Cuban emigrants to the United States.

During interrogations on September 16 and 17, DTI agents also threatened to prosecute the brothers for “disrespect” and “spreading false news,” and to bring additional charges under the Law for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy (also known as Law 88). Law 88 mandates prison terms of up to 20 years for anyone found guilty of “supporting, facilitating, or collaborating with the objectives of the Helms-Burton Law [U.S. legislation that imposes sanctions on foreign companies trading with Cuba], the embargo, and the economic war against our people, with the goal of ruining internal order, destabilizing the country, and liquidating the socialist state and Cuba’s independence.”

Local independent journalists contended that Cuban authorities had detained the two journalists because of their work, and that all the charges were fabricated to intimidate them and create grounds for future prosecution.

Jesús and Jadir were released on the afternoon of September 18. CPJ published a news alert about the case on September 20.

Omar Rodríguez Saludes,
Nueva Prensa

Rodríguez Saludes, who had worked for the independent news agency Nueva Prensa since 1997, was detained by state security agents, who also searched his home. At around 8 a.m., government agents detained Rodríguez Saludes at his home in the Havana neighborhood of Lawton. Before taking the journalist to the headquarters of the National Police’s Sixth Unit, located in the neighborhood of Marianao, they searched his house.

News of Rodríguez Saludes’ detention was released by the journalist’s nine-year-old son, who phoned Odilia Collazo Valdés, president of the outlawed Partido Pro Derechos Humanos de Cuba (Cuba Human Rights Party). From the police station, Rodríguez Saludes was taken to a State Security Department detention center in Havana, where he was released later that evening.