Five years after the government’s massive crackdown on the independent press, 21 journalists remained behind bars in inhumane conditions as Cuba retained its notorious distinction as the world’s second-leading jailer of journalists. Only China jailed more. Two Cuban reporters were released from prison and went into exile during the year, but harassment of independent journalists and their families continued unabated. Despite the continued repression, a new generation of bloggers openly criticized authorities, offering some promise that free expression may have found a home.
In March 2003, the Cuban government swept up 29 journalists, convicted them in closed-door trials, and sentenced them to prison terms of up to 27 years. To mark the fifth anniversary of the journalists’ incarceration, CPJ issued the special report “Cuba’s Long Black Spring,” which described the dire situation for imprisoned journalists and their families. Reporters were held in prisons hundreds of miles from their homes and provided inadequate food and health care, CPJ found. Their families were constantly watched and blacklisted from government jobs—the only kind of work available since the state is the sole employer. Laura Pollán, a human rights activist and wife of jailed independent journalist Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, told CPJ that state security agents had set up two seemingly permanent checkpoints on the block in front of her house. Pollán said her telephone was tapped, her home bugged, and her private e-mail account hacked. CPJ honored Maseda Gutiérrez, 65, Cuba’s oldest jailed reporter, with a 2008 International Press Freedom Award.
CPJ’s report noted that the Cuban government had periodically freed journalists and dissidents since the 2003 crackdown in exchange for international concessions. Since taking office in 2004, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has acted as a mediator between the European Union and the Castro government. In February, soon after Spain announced the resumption of cooperative programs with Cuba, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos announced the release of four prisoners, including independent journalists José Gabriel Ramón Castillo and Alejandro González Raga. Both reporters, who were immediately exiled to Spain along with their families, had been detained in 2003.
During June meetings of the Council of the European Union in Brussels, the EU agreed to suspend 2003 sanctions that had banned top-level official Cuban visits to EU countries. The EU stated that the bloc was ready to resume an open dialogue with Cuban authorities on “all topics of mutual interest,” provided Cuba improved its human rights record. CPJ sent a letter to the European commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, Louis Michel, urging the EU to ensure that President Raúl Castro’s government improved human rights conditions by immediately releasing all imprisoned journalists and by granting freedom of expression to all Cubans.
Castro, 76, who had served for his ailing older brother, Fidel, since 2006, was officially named president on February 24. Four days after the succession, Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides “the right to freedom of expression” and other fundamental human rights, along with the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. But the minister said the Cuban government would submit interpretations and reservations regarding certain provisions. Pérez Roque did not specify the reservations or say when they would be disclosed. Cuba’s National Assembly of the People’s Power had not ratified the treaties by late year.
With Raúl Castro as president, the government undertook significant economic, agricultural, and administrative reforms. In May, the state authorized the sale of electronic goods such as computers, DVD players, and cell phones, according to international news reports. Previously, only foreigners and companies had been allowed to purchase computers. But the authorization to own electronic goods had limited impact, said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a formerly imprisoned freelance journalist who was released on medical parole in 2004. For Cubans, who earn on average 480 pesos (US$20) a month, purchasing a cell phone or a computer is rarely possible, he explained. “And then,” asked Manuel Vázquez Portal, a 2003 CPJ awardee and a journalist exiled in Miami, “what can people do with computers if the government restricts Internet access?”
Only government officials and people with tight links to the Communist Party have personal Web access, Cuban reporters told CPJ. The Internet is also available to students at restricted computer laboratories, to tourists at hotels, and to other Cubans at public Internet cafés. Illegal connections and passwords are available on the black market for a very high price, CPJ research found.
Despite the limitations, a nascent group of Cuban bloggers seemed to be slipping past the regime’s tight Internet regulations to send information from the island by posting it online. The bloggers, mainly young people and professional journalists, chronicled everyday life in Cuba. Some wrote with a byline, others under pseudonyms. Nearly all were openly critical of Cuban authorities.
Thirty-three-year-old Yoani Sánchez was the best known. Sánchez’s blog, Generación Y, recorded her observations on topics such as 2008 hurricane devastation, politically motivated arrests, and food shortages. Sánchez wrote from her small Havana apartment. She uploaded her files at public Internet cafés or, when it was hard to access the Web, she dictated them over the phone to friends living abroad, according to CPJ interviews and press reports. Sánchez told CPJ that the blog was her way of “pushing back against the system.” The system pushed back by prohibiting her from leaving the island. According to a May 7 post on her blog, travel authorities confiscated Sánchez’s passport without explanation.
Generación Y was hosted by the foreign-based portal Desde Cuba (From Cuba) along with seven other blogs. The portal was portrayed as a place where “citizen journalists” could make public “opinions that don’t have room in official Cuban outlets or any other publication that is conditioned by political requirements.” As readers posted comments, the portal became a new, if limited, forum for discussion on Cuban issues.
Most blogs appeared not to be fully blocked on the island, said Espinosa Chepe, who was able to access them occasionally from Havana. Generación Y, however, was inaccessible on a number of occasions, as Sánchez reported on her blog.
AMERICAS: Regional Analysis
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