March 18 is not a day we usually look forward to at CPJ. On this day in 2003, the Cuban government launched a massive crackdown on the independent press resulting in the jailing of 29 reporters. But this year we have reason to feel encouraged. On March 4, with the release of Pedro Argüelles Morán, the last of the Black Spring journalists was released.
Documenting the ordeal of dozens of independent Cuban journalists and their families after more than seven years of unjust imprisonment, cruel treatment and psychological, pressure has been quite an extraordinary experience. Much to our relief, all of those 29 reporters jailed during of the infamous crackdown on the Cuban dissidence eight years ago can now breathe freedom. This new anniversary of the Cuban Black Spring gives us the chance to reflect on the plight of this courageous group of journalists and our years-long efforts to set them free.
In March 2003, the world’s attention was focused on the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. While launching our annual report in Washington, I got a call from then-program Research Associate Sauro González. He was agitated. He said that the homes of independent journalists had been raided and there were reports of massive detentions. We condemned the government’s actions, released several news alerts, and wrote to President Fidel Castro calling for the immediate release of all jailed reporters. By April, 29 journalists in all were given lengthy prison sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years.
Cuba’s closed socialist system and its lack of response to pressure from the international community made it harder for us to effectively campaign on behalf of our colleagues. We needed to be practical and creative, that was our only chance to caught Castro’s attention.
For the Black Spring’s first anniversary, CPJ sent more than 600 appeals to then-President Fidel Castro calling for the release of jailed Cuban journalist Manuel Vázquez Portal, a recipient of CPJ’s 2003 International Press Freedom Award, and the other 28 imprisoned Cuban journalists. But there was something unique about those appeals: at least 50 of them came from some of the most renowned journalists and writers in Latin America, including intellectuals who at some point had sympathized with Cuban ideals.
Three months after our campaign was launched, Vázquez Portal was released from jail. He later told me that the support from top Latin American journalists and CPJ were essential to his freedom.
Throughout the years, as the health of jailed journalists deteriorated and their families grew desperate, we widely documented the abuses of the Cuban government, issued dozens of news alerts, and numerous letters. We also met with Latin American ambassadors at the U.N. and worked through diplomatic channels to bring attention to their plight–key leaders in the region were immune to the grave human rights violations in Cuba.
CPJ’s Americas program brought attention to Cuba’s lack of commitment to press freedom before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and different forums across Latin America. Foreign journalists traveled to Cuba on our behalf to express solidarity with the journalists’ family members, many of whom were socially and economically marginalized for being related to dissidents. CPJ’s Journalist Assistance program responded with material support.
Our strategy shifted gears in 2007. Based on the fact that the Spanish government had been key in securing the only releases that took place in the previous few years, we actively engaged in conversations with the government of President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.
In March 2008, Madrid was selected as the venue for the launch of an in-depth report on Cuba five years after the crackdown. We held a press conference in Spain’s capital with Cuban poet and writer Raúl Rivero and Spanish intellectual Antonio Muñoz Molina. Joining CPJ’s call for freedom were, again, intellectuals from all parts of the political spectrum, including those on the left who have supported Castro and denounced U.S. policy toward the island–like Noam Chomsky and Chilean novelist, playwright, and essayist Ariel Dorfman.
All of these efforts were inspired by the incredible courage and determination of the Black Spring journalists and their unrelenting loved ones. During these long eight years, there were many times when we felt frustrated and powerless to influence a government bent on repressing any kind of independent journalism. But we couldn’t give up the fight. Knowing the conditions journalists endured during captivity was enough to keep us on task. While we are today celebrating that all the Black Spring journalists are free and with their families, there is still much work to be done. One journalist is still imprisoned, those released in Cuba remain under tight government watch and face risk of re-arrest, and Cuba still has to dismantle the repressive legal framework that makes such arrests possible.