Attacks on the Press 2010: Cuba

Top Developments
• Cuba relents on political detainees, frees 17 journalists. Four still held.
• In exile, freed journalists face economic, professional difficulties.

Key Statistic
45: Poems that journalist and former detainee Ricardo González Alfonso smuggled from prison.

After years of intensive advocacy and international diplomacy, 17 independent journalists swept up in the government’s 2003 Black Spring crackdown were finally freed from an unjust and inhumane imprisonment. The Roman Catholic Church, with participation from Spanish officials, struck an agreement in July with the government of President Raúl Castro Ruz that called for the release of all 52 prisoners still being held seven years after the massive crackdown on political dissent and independent journalism. The deal as outlined by the church called for the release of all Black Spring detainees within four months, but three journalists and several other dissidents, apparently balking at Cuba’s insistence that they leave the country in exchange for their freedom, remained in jail in late year. A fourth journalist, arrested in 2009, also remained in prison.


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CPJ and other rights groups had campaigned extensively on behalf of the detainees. The death in February of imprisoned dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo appeared to tip the balance. Zapata, serving a 25-year sentence on charges of disrespecting authorities, died after an 85-day hunger strike in protest of appalling prison conditions. His death highlighted Cuba’s cruel treatment of political prisoners, triggering worldwide condemnation and an unusual statement of regret from President Castro. It also sparked strong reactions from the jailed dissidents themselves, one of whom, Guillermo Fariñas, launched his own hunger strike.

The prospect of a second death, as Fariñas refused food and water for more than 130 days and was kept alive at a hospital through intravenous feeding, was too much for Cuban authorities to ignore. Facing widespread calls from the international community to end the political imprisonments, the government launched active negotiations with the church. By May, the two sides reached an agreement to transfer detainees being held in jails distant from their families to facilities closer to their homes. Six imprisoned journalists, including 2008 CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, were moved to prisons closer to their homes.

After a July 7 meeting with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Cuban government agreed to release the 52 Black Spring prisoners “within three to four months,” the church said in a statement. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodríguez took part in the meeting, according to the Cuban state newspaper Granma. The church said the prisoners would be allowed to leave Cuba, but did not say that exile was a requirement for their release, according to press reports. In practice, however, every freed detainee was immediately flown to Spain, and those who refused remained in jail. Cuban authorities, intent on marginalizing opposition groups, have traditionally wanted political detainees to leave the country in exchange for their freedom.

Independent journalists Léster Luis González Pentón, Omar Ruíz Hernández, Julio César Gálvez Rodríguez, José Luis García Paneque, Pablo Pacheco Ávila, and Ricardo González Alfonso were the first six to arrive in Madrid on July 13. “I have nothing to celebrate until all my colleagues are released from jail,” Pacheco Ávila told CPJ in a telephone interview from Spain. Omar Rodríguez Saludes, Normando Hernández González, Mijail Bárzaga Lugo, Alfredo Pulido López, José Ubaldo Izquierdo, Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, Fabio Prieto Llorente, Juan Adolfo Fernández Saínz, Víctor Rolando Arroyo Carmona, Miguel Galván Gutiérrez, and Alfredo Felipe Fuentes were released and flown to Spain with their families over the following three months.

Upon arrival in Spain, the local refugee group Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado organized the Cubans’ accommodations and offered them psychological support and medical care. While the Spanish press welcomed the arrival of the dissidents and featured their stories, the Spanish government offered a more restrained welcome, housing them in modest hostels in the suburbs of Madrid. Some journalists later relocated to cities such as Málaga and Valencia, while reporter Ubaldo Izquierdo moved to Chile, where he was granted political asylum. With Spain’s unemployment rate topping 20 percent and the economy in a deep recession, the new arrivals expected a difficult adjustment.

The Red Cross treated journalists with serious ailments. After seven years of confinement, the health of many reporters had deteriorated significantly, with problems ranging from diabetes and tumors to pneumonia and cataracts, CPJ found. In some cases, they had received scant medical attention; in many instances, unsanitary prison conditions exacerbated their medical problems.

Spain provided assistance with rent, clothes, food, transportation, jobs, education, and health services, as well as pocket money–85 euros monthly per couple (about US$110), with small, additional amounts for other dependents, according to The Miami Herald. Spanish officials also offered the exiled Cubans the most favorable immigration status, known as Assisted International Protection, press reports said, which allowed them to apply for permanent residency and also offered the possibility of returning to Cuba with permission from Havana as well as Spanish citizenship in four to five years. Former prisoners were granted a work permit and were allowed to travel freely, but many saw themselves as refugees. “I consider myself a political exile,” said Ruíz Hernández. “I didn’t come here for economic reasons; I came here for political reasons.” Some, like Hernández González, hoped to move to the United States, where they already had family. In October, the U.S. State Department announced that Cuban dissidents and family members in Spain would be allowed in the United States speedily under a program known as Significant Public Benefit Parole, according to The Miami Herald.

Independent reporters Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, Pedro Arguelles Morán, and Iván Hernández Carrillo were among the 11 Black Spring detainees who remained in Cuban prisons in late year. Laura Pollán, the wife of Maseda Gutiérrez, said he told her that “he will not let anybody throw him out of his country.” Maseda Gutiérrez, 67, was serving a 20-year prison term on antistate charges. In September, the Madrid daily El País quoted Spanish officials who said that detainees who wanted to stay in Cuba could be freed through a parole program. The Cuban government did not confirm such an arrangement, which could pose risks to the detainees even if it were provided. In granting parole, Cuban authorities could leave open the possibility of sending dissidents back to prison.

CPJ and other international press freedom and human rights groups had campaigned extensively on behalf of the Cuban detainees. From the beginning, CPJ thoroughly documented their condition, supported their families, and denounced abuses by authorities. In recent years, CPJ advocacy focused on engaging the Spanish government and European Union members to press Cuba for the release of the dissidents. In 2007, a CPJ delegation met several times with officers of the human rights unit of the Spanish Foreign Ministry, providing them with detailed information on the status of all imprisoned Cuban journalists.

The U.S. government said Cuba was moving in the right direction by releasing the prisoners, and some European leaders praised the move. But Cuba’s grudging decision to free the detainees was not enough to sway the European Union. On October 25, foreign ministers of the EU’s 27 member states decided to maintain the 1996 Common Position toward Cuba, turning back a request by Spain to withdraw the doctrine. The Common Position has linked improved European-Cuban relations to Havana’s progress on human rights and democratization. In Cuba, dissidents hailed the EU’s decision. In March, CPJ had sent a letter to Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in his role as head of the EU’s presidency, asserting that the EU should not ease the Common Position without demonstrable improvements in human rights. 

The jailed editors and writers left a remarkable journalistic legacy, documenting abuses, crafting prose, and spinning poetry from their cells, then smuggling their work out to the free world. González Alfonso smuggled out the 45 poems that became the collection Men Without Faces on tiny slips of paper rolled inside individual cigarettes. After the collection was published in Spain, the United States, and France, he was punished by his jailers. “My audacity had its price,” he wrote on the CPJ Blog in November. “I was sent to a punishment cell, where the bed was a concrete bench and the floor was carpeted in rodent excrement.” Yet he ultimately triumphed over his captors, he wrote. “The government failed in its attempt to silence voices capable of screaming and singing through prison bars and walls, past guards and terror.”

While the long-overdue release of dissidents was a relief for journalists and their families after years of suffering, the gesture did not augur fundamental changes in freedom of expression or access to information for all Cubans. “No changes have been made in terms of granting information for Cuban citizens, and independent reporting continues to be banned,” said Manuel Vázquez Portal, a Cuban poet, writer, and journalist who was freed and went into exile a year after he was arrested in the Black Spring crackdown.

In fact, the laws that allowed Cuba to jail reporters remain very much in place. They are written in Article 91 of the penal code, which imposes lengthy prison sentences or death for those who act against “the independence or the territorial integrity of the state,” and Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy, which imposes up to 20 years in prison for committing acts “aimed at subverting the internal order of the nation and destroying its political, economic, and social system.”

An emerging community of bloggers continued reporting on everyday experiences, providing Cuban citizens and the international community with information about the hardships of life in the Caribbean nation. While bloggers have not been jailed for their work, they have faced harassment and intimidation. “The summary trials that characterized the 2003 crackdown have been replaced by extralegal harassment such as official summonses and arbitrary detentions,” said independent Cuban blogger Laritza Diversent. “Extended jail terms have been replaced by social and cultural marginalization.” A 2009 CPJ special report, “Chronicling Cuba, bloggers offer fresh hope,” described how the blogging community has dealt with legal, economic, and technological limitations while expressing opinions that challenged the government’s viewpoint. “While the methods may have changed, the goals are quite the same,” Diversent said. “But Cuba is still a dark corner, a country where freedom of expression is a crime if it contradicts the goals of the socialist system.”