Don’t play along with Castro’s cynical game

This article originally appeared in
The International Herald Tribune
December 13, 2004

NEW YORK–When Raúl Rivero was released from prison and reunited with his family in Havana last week, newspapers around the world published photographs of the smiling Cuban writer embracing his wife, Blanca.

Rivero, one of Cuba’s greatest living poets and dean of the country’s independent press movement, was among a handful of journalists and other dissidents recently released after spending many months behind bars on baseless charges. The Cuban government swept up 29 journalists and dozens of other dissidents in a March 2003 crackdown, convicted them in closed-door summary trials and sentenced them to prison terms of up to 27 years.

The release of some of these imprisoned journalists is good news, but it should not be construed as a sign that press conditions are improving. The Cuban government cynically views these imprisoned journalists as human bargaining chips whose liberty can be used to extort concessions from the international community. More than 20 other journalists are still behind bars for no other reason than articulating views that don’t comport with Fidel Castro and his government.

None of the freed journalists are able to work without fear of reprisal. Released on medical paroles, each could be returned to prison at Castro’s whim. Several are considering the government’s strong suggestion that they leave the country.

The international community should remember this cruel manipulation. Representatives of the 25 European Union nations are scheduled to meet in Brussels on Tuesday to consider a proposal from the Spanish government for a diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba. Relations between Cuba and the EU were severely strained – and EU financial aid was eventually halted – after the 2003 crackdown.

Spain’s prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, certainly deserves credit for helping win the release of some of the imprisoned journalists and dissidents, reportedly in exchange for Spain’s commitment to work for improved Cuba-EU relations.

Yet much more must be demanded. With 23 journalists still in prison, Cuba is the world’s second leading jailer of journalists – behind only China – and those behind bars represent a third of the nation’s independent press corps, according to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Prison conditions are dire: Most are held far from their families, in unsanitary conditions, with inadequate food and medical care. Rivero said he served 11 of his 20 months in solitary confinement in a cell so small he could not extend his arms.

In July 2003, the Committee to Protect Journalists asked the noted Peruvian reporter Gustavo Gorriti to travel to Cuba clandestinely and meet with the families of the imprisoned journalists. Other journalists and press freedom activists who had sought to make contact with these families had been expelled from the country.

Gorriti’s report was bleak. The small network of independent journalists in Havana had been infiltrated by undercover state security agents, who labeled as spies the writers and editors who dared to disagree with the government. Gorriti concluded that the imprisoned journalists were seen as negotiating tools by the Cuban government. The long prison sentences handed down to the journalists confirm this analysis. Even in Cuba, it is hard to imagine the government imprisoning journalists for 27 years.

The arrests, convictions, prison sentences and harsh treatment have made it abundantly clear to the remaining independent journalists in Cuba there are severe consequences for challenging the government’s information monopoly. And if the Cuban government succeeds in forcing top journalists into exile it will have achieved another long-term objective.

This behavior should not be rewarded. While dialogue with the EU is welcome, the European community should not allow Cuba to use the liberty of journalists to extract political concessions. Step one in the bargaining process should be the immediate and unconditional release of the journalists and dissidents.

Cuba has largely succeeded in crushing the independent journalism movement through intimidation. Allowing the Castro government to improve its international image at the same time would compound the injustice.

Joel Simon is Deputy Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.