Facing intense international interest in President Fidel Castro’s hospitalization and the transfer of power to his brother, the Cuban government severely restricted information about Castro’s illness in the name of state security and selectively blocked foreign journalists’ entry into the country.
In a July 31 proclamation aired on Cuban television without advance notice, Castro announced that he had undergone emergency surgery for intestinal bleeding and would temporarily hand over power to his brother, Raúl. A second message by Castro, released on August 1, dispelled any doubts as to how the Cuban government would handle news of his illness. Castro labeled his health condition “a state secret,” and officials refused to disclose the severity of his illness, its cause, its prognosis, or even the hospital in which he was being treated.
From there on, the 80-year-old Castro’s appearances were few and carefully managed. After 40 days in September and October in which no information at all was released, the government finally circulated images and a brief interview with Castro that sought to combat rumors about his failing health. Government statements said vaguely that he was recovering, but they offered no details; photos showed a gaunt and pale president. At one point, officials said he would return to office in December, but that timetable was postponed indefinitely in the fall. The information, scarce and imprecise as it was, fueled speculation that Castro might not return to power in full capacity.
Foreign journalists flocked to Cuba to report on one of the year’s top stories, but many, including Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, were rebuffed, ostensibly because they did not have proper visas. CPJ documented at least 10 cases in which the government barred entry to foreign journalists carrying tourist visas. Under Cuban immigration law, foreign reporters must apply for specialized journalist visas through Cuban embassies abroad. CPJ research shows that Cuban officials have historically granted visas to foreign journalists selectively, excluding those from media outlets deemed unfriendly. Cuban law further specifies that foreign journalists who travel to the country on a tourist visa “should abstain from practicing journalism.”
The government also canceled the visas of at least four foreign journalists who had received approval to travel to Havana, according to CPJ research. Several Reuters reporters who managed to get into the country on tourist visas were told to leave. And Ginger Thompson, a reporter for The New York Times, was tracked down and expelled after her paper published a non-byline story from Havana. The Miami Herald succeeded in getting some of its reporters into Cuba on tourist visas. They went undetected for several weeks, filing stories that surveyed Cubans about their thoughts on the transfer of power and the nation’s future.
Contrary to some predictions that the regime would crumble in the absence of Castro, the episode showed that the ruling elite could retain a tight grip on power. A government headed by Raúl Castro, younger than his brother by five years, was expected to eventually institute some economic reforms but continue to suppress the press and political rights.
In a report marking World Press Freedom Day, May 3, CPJ named Cuba one of the world’s 10 Most Censored Countries. CPJ’s analysis noted that the Cuban Constitution grants the Communist Party the right to control the press, and it recognizes the rights of the press only “in accordance with the goals of the socialist society.” The government owns and controls all media outlets and restricts Internet access. The three main newspapers represent the views of the Communist Party and other organizations controlled by the government.
The media operate under the supervision of the Communist Party’s Department of Revolutionary Orientation, which develops and coordinates propaganda strategies. Those who try to work as independent reporters are harassed, detained, threatened with prosecution or jail, or barred from traveling. Their relatives are threatened with dismissal from their jobs. A small number of foreign correspondents report from Havana, but Cubans do not ever see their reports.
Independent Cuban journalists, who file stories for overseas news Web sites, continued to cover news that the official media ignored. During 2006, independent journalists reported extensively on outbreaks of dengue fever, a mosquito-borne viral disease, that were occurring throughout the island. Meanwhile, authorities and the official media refused to recognize the existence of dengue fever in Cuba for much of the year, focusing instead on government efforts to eradicate the mosquito that transmits the disease. Finally, in October, the Cuban Ministry of Health informed the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) about dengue outbreaks in four Cuban provinces. Health officials claimed the number of cases had declined significantly—without providing PAHO with figures for the total number of documented cases.
Cuba continued to be one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, second only to China. During 2006, two imprisoned journalists were released, but two more were jailed. One of them—Guillermo Espinosa Rodríguez, who was sentenced to two years of home confinement—had covered an outbreak of dengue fever in Santiago de Cuba.
Of the 24 journalists who remained imprisoned, 22 were jailed in a massive March 2003 crackdown on the independent press. Their prison sentences on antistate charges ranged from 14 to 27 years. Many of them were jailed far from their homes, adding to the heavy burden on their families. Their families have described unsanitary prison conditions, inadequate medical care, and rotten food. Some imprisoned journalists were being denied religious guidance, and most shared cells with hardened criminals. Many 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 and protesting the journalists’ incarceration.