Attacks on the Press 2005: Cuba


Cuba remained one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists,
second only to China. Two journalists were imprisoned during the year, joining 22 others who have been jailed since a massive crackdown on the independent press in March 2003. On the second anniversary of that notorious sweep, more than 100 prominent Latin American writers—including Tomás Eloy Martínez, Sergio Ramírez, Carlos Fuentes, Elena Poniatowska, Daniel Santoro, and Antonio Caballero—joined CPJ in signing a letter to President Fidel Castro Ruz calling for the immediate, unconditional release of the imprisoned journalists.

Castro’s government had paroled six journalists in 2004 to help win renewed diplomatic ties to the European Union. But without a political incentive in 2005, his government paroled only one journalist, Mario Enrique Mayo Hernández, subjected many others to harassment, and hardened its rhetorical line once again. In an ominous speech in July, Castro likened opposition activities to “barefaced acts of treason.”

Most of the jailed journalists remained far from their homes, adding to the heavy burden on their families. They denounced unsanitary prison conditions and inadequate medical care, and they complained of being fed rotten food. Many of them were allowed family visits only once every three months and marital visits only once every four months—a schedule of visits far less frequent than those allowed most inmates. Relatives were harassed for talking to the foreign press, protesting the journalists’ incarceration, and gathering signatures calling for their release.

Journalists who were ill before being jailed saw their health worsen in prison; some were transferred to the hospital at Combinado del Este Prison in Havana or to prison infirmaries. Others, such as Víctor Rolando Arroyo and Adolfo Fernández Saínz, went on hunger strikes to protest the poor conditions. Because prison authorities limited outside contact and refused to disclose information, families were unable to monitor the journalists’ health.

But punishing journalists for exercising their right to free expression had some unintended consequences for the Cuban government: An increasing number of imprisoned journalists smuggled reports out of jail for publication abroad, on Miami-based Web sites such as CubaNet and Nueva Prensa Cubana. And relatives of imprisoned journalists and dissidents joined Cuba’s growing independent press movement, reporting details about prison conditions and disclosing cases of mistreatment.

Two journalists released on medical parole in 2004—Raúl Rivero and Manuel Vázquez Portal—were allowed to leave the island in 2005. Rivero settled in Madrid, Spain, where he wrote for the online Encuentro en la Red, which is run by Cuban exiles, and began a column in the daily El Mundo. Vázquez Portal settled in Miami, where he became an editor for CubaNet and started a column in the Spanish-language edition of The Miami Herald. Two other journalists paroled in 2004, Oscar Espinosa Chepe and Jorge Olivera Castillo, continued to work as independent journalists in Havana, despite warnings they could be sent back to prison if they didn’t maintain “good behavior.”

In May, authorities detained and expelled at least five foreign journalists—two Italians and three Poles—who traveled to Cuba to cover an unprecedented gathering of opposition activists. The two-day meeting, the first such event held by the opposition, was organized by the Assembly to Promote Civil Society (APSC), an umbrella group of civil-society and dissident groups. The government said that the journalists were expelled for violating Cuban immigration law because they traveled on tourist visas, not work visas. But CPJ’s analysis shows that it is unlikely journalists could have obtained work visas to report on opposition activities. Under Cuban immigration regulations, foreign reporters must apply for journalist visas through Cuban embassies abroad. According to CPJ research, Cuban officials grant visas to foreign journalists selectively, and they routinely exclude media outlets deemed unfriendly.

Repression intensified midyear after Castro delivered a speech in July warning that the government wouldn’t tolerate dissent. Referring to an opposition protest that was met with a police crackdown, Castro said, “This time the people, angrier than before over such barefaced acts of treason, intervened with patriotic fervor and didn’t allow a single mercenary to move. And this is what will happen whenever traitors and mercenaries go a millimeter beyond the point that our revolutionary people…are willing to accept.”

Oscar Mario González, a journalist who covered the APSC congress, was one of the first victims of this renewed crackdown. González, a journalist with the independent news agency Grupo de Trabajo Decoro, was arrested on July 22 and held without trial. According to Ana Leonor Díaz, director of Grupo de Trabajo Decoro, a police investigator told González’s relatives that he would be prosecuted under Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy. The law provides for up to 20 years in prison for anyone who commits “acts that in agreement with imperialist interests are aimed at subverting the internal order of the nation and destroy its political, economic, and social system.”

A second journalist who covered the APSC meeting, Albert Santiago Du Bouchet Hernández, was imprisoned the next month. Du Bouchet Hernández, director of the independent news agency Havana Press, was arrested on August 6, tried three days later, and handed a one-year jail term—all without the knowledge of his family, who learned of his detention only after the journalist smuggled a note out of prison. He was detained while on a reporting trip to the town of Artemisa, 38 miles (60 kilometers) from Havana, and charged with “disrespecting” the local chief of police and resisting arrest. His wife, Bárbara Pérez Araya, said that the charges were fabricated and the journalist did not have access to a lawyer before or during the trial.

Starting in July and continuing throughout the year, the government organized demonstrations known as “repudiation acts.” Government supporters congregated outside the homes of opposition members and independent journalists, intimidated the occupants, and prevented them from leaving their homes or receiving visitors. On October 10 and for the next three days, dozens of government supporters harassed a group of independent journalists who had launched an online magazine, Consenso, in December 2004. According to a statement from Consenso, the crowd kept journalists from entering a building in Havana for a weekly meeting, hurled insults, and accused the journalists of being “anti-Cuban and counter-revolutionary.” Two journalists were pushed around and another was detained by police for two hours.

In addition to outright confrontation, authorities kept up a low-intensity intimidation campaign. In February, for example, state security officials summoned journalist Iván García Quintero to a Havana police station, where they interrogated him for two hours and threatened to imprison him for subversion. García continued to write despite the risk.