July 31 marked a year without Fidel Castro, whose health remained a “state secret” even though it was the biggest story of the year. Cuba continued to prove itself one of the worst reporting environments in the world as three foreign journalists were expelled from the island and 24 Cuban reporters languished in prison.
Castro, who relinquished power to his younger brother, Raúl, following emergency surgery in July 2006, made no public appearances. His byline, however, was ubiquitous. During the first six months of 2007, dozens of opinion articles appeared under Fidel Castro’s name in the Havana dailies Granma and Juventud Rebelde. His general and often rambling remarks focused on international and historical issues.
The government left intact its 2006 declaration that Castro’s health was a state secret. The Cuban media—completely controlled by the Communist Party under the Cuban constitution—barely referred to the condition of the 81-year-old leader. Instead, Cubans learned of it primarily through accounts from foreign leaders such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías and Bolivian President Evo Morales. (Independent journalists, filing for overseas Web sites, produced a small number of articles on Castro’s health without consequences.)
In April, the sole outlet for critical commentary and analysis within Cuba changed its focus. Citing a lack of resources, the Catholic Church in the western city of Pinar del Río initially announced in April that it would no longer publish the weekly Vitral, according to The Miami Herald. Instead, however, the weekly continued to publish with a new staff and a different editorial stance that replaced social criticism with coverage of church events. “The end of Vitral’s open viewpoint was the hardest blow to the independent press this year,” said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a freelance journalist and paroled political prisoner.
Cubans had limited access to news sources other than the official media, although some listened to shortwave broadcasts of U.S.-based Radio Martí and European radio stations. State control of Internet access remained tight. The general population could log on to the Internet from hotels or government-controlled Internet cafés by means of voucher cards that were expensive and often difficult to find, reporters told CPJ.
Many Web sites were simply not accessible. “Cubans can’t visit sites that discuss the dissident movement or Cuban democracy—we can’t even visit the CPJ site,” said Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz, president of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation in Havana. Nonetheless, like most commodities in Cuba, Internet access was available on the black market for a high price, independent journalist Guillermo Fariñas said. Cubans could purchase monthly passwords for more than 40 pesos (US$40) that allowed them access to some parts of the Web, he said.
Human rights advocates and independent journalists could also access the Internet at foreign embassies in Havana, said Sánchez Santa Cruz. Overall, the independent Cuban press made significant use of foreign embassy facilities, CPJ research found. Reporters said embassy officials allowed them to read foreign papers and use printers and copiers. Some independent news agencies used embassy equipment to print leaflets with news and commentary, which were distributed among members of the dissident movement, several reporters told CPJ. These rare and unofficial publications were referred to as “clippings.”
Independent reporters across the island continued writing and sending news to Web sites abroad. Reporters filed stories via telephone, e-mail, and fax on topics such as the dissident movement, political repression, food shortages, and inadequate transportation. Many told CPJ that official harassment declined in 2007, with fewer detentions and direct threats. Yet a few symbolic cases reminded the world that Cuba remained one of the world’s most repressed countries.
Authorities arrested Oscar Sánchez Madan, a freelance reporter, on April 13 at his home in the western province of Matanzas. Sánchez Madan was tried on “social dangerousness” and given the maximum sentence of four years in prison. Authorities had warned the reporter to stop working as an independent journalist after he published an exposé on local corruption, journalist Hugo Sánchez said.
On August 20, Armando Betancourt Reina, a reporter for the independent news agency Nueva Prensa Cubana, was released after 15 months in jail. He had been detained on May 23, 2006, while covering the eviction of poor families from their homes. The journalist was tried and sentenced on July 3, 2007, after being held at the local Cerámica Roja Prison without charge for more than a year. Shortly after his release, Betancourt Reina told the Miami-based group Directorio Democrático Cubano that he observed human rights violations in prison. The journalist said that while he was not attacked, he witnessed guards and hardened criminals beating political prisoners.
After Betancourt Reina’s release, the number of imprisoned reporters and editors stood at 24, making Cuba the second-leading jailer of journalists worldwide. The health of 22 of those journalists, most of them jailed in a March 2003 crackdown, deteriorated during the year, CPJ research found. During a series of interviews in June, the families and friends of eight jailed journalists told CPJ that the prisoners’ health was suffering amid poor conditions and insufficient health care. Pre-existing ailments worsened in prison, and serious new illnesses arose.
Cuban authorities also intimidated the families of jailed journalists. Laura Pollán, a human rights activist and wife of imprisoned journalist Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, said police permanently posted an agent outside her house. Police officers searched, harassed, and threatened her visitors, Pollán told CPJ. Yamilé Llanes Labrada, whose husband, José Luis García Paneque, was also imprisoned, told CPJ in June that she and her four young children had been forced to flee Cuba four months earlier after being subjected to continuous harassment. The family moved to the United States.
Authorities continued to use political considerations in granting entry to foreign journalists. In February, the government informed Havana-based correspondents Gary Marx of the Chicago Tribune, Stephen Gibbs of the BBC, and César González-Calero of the Mexican daily El Universal that their press credentials would not be renewed. The decision, according to international press reports, was based on the government’s perception that the journalists had filed negative stories.