CPJ's Journalist Assistance program helped support the families of Cuban journalists held in jails like this one on the outskirts of Havana. (Reuters/Claudia Daut)
Fernández Saínz reported the stories of his fellow prisoners from inside a jail like this one on the outskirts of Havana. (Reuters//Claudia Daut)

Assisting journalists in Cuba: Hurdles in prison and beyond

In mid-2006, CPJ’s Journalist Assistance program began sending regular remittances to the families of independent Cuban journalists in prison. By CPJ’s count, of the 29 journalists jailed during a massive crackdown in 2003, 24 were still in prison at the time–making Cuba the world’s second-worst jailer of journalists in the world. The remittances, sent monthly, helped families cover travel expenses to the prisons–sometimes two days away on shabby buses–and basic maintenance for the jailed editors and reporters–ranging from food staples like rice and beans, to clothes, bowls and spoons, to aspirin and specialized medications, all unavailable behind bars. At the time, I was the Research Associate for the Americas program, and my job was to contact families and catalog urgency and needs.

But the Cuba project had begun long before. Seeing the journalists’ health plummet and their families struggle to help while being systematically blackballed on the government-controlled job market, Elisabeth Witchel, then coordinator of the assistance program, had been working to find a way to legally send funds to Cuba. Because the island is on a list of countries with strict restrictions for financial remittances (flanking Iran, Somalia, and other nations deemed terrorist harbors and/or brutal dictatorships by the U.S. government), sending money to Cuba was a problem.

After months of legal consultations and paperwork, CPJ finally received a special license from the U.S. Treasury, allowing us to send grants to Cuba. But the path was still not clear. In May 2006, as CPJ attempted to send funds for the first time, we hit another barrier–this time a corporate one. Our transaction would not proceed through Western Union’s system, which was only set up to permit transactions to and from family members. Though CPJ’s license legally gave us permission to remit funds, technically speaking we literally did not compute. Weeks more passed as we explored other options, but found no viable and legal alternative. Finally, it took a call from CPJ’s then-Chairman Paul Steiger to a Western Union vice president explaining the situation before the company agreed to work out a solution.

And so began the problems on the ground. From the first day of the crackdown, the wives, mothers and sisters of those imprisoned showed an uncanny ability to organize into a group, known today as the Ladies in White. The Ladies tallied needs and conveyed them to me over tattered telephone lines, in the same way their husbands had filed unreported news to Miami websites. But like their husbands, the Ladies were also watched, and no matter how careful we were to keep their identities undisclosed and our dealings under wraps, the Cuban government quickly intervened.

As soon as authorities got word that a group of jailed dissidents was receiving money from the U.S., the Ladies, labeled “imperialist spies” by the Cuban government, became a target for harassment. Some were even called in for questioning. But they did not give up. Instead, they became better organizers–smuggling out of prisons information on necessities and ailments, and finding ways to get our assistance in the form medicine and food back in.

Through the Cuba project, CPJ has helped the families of 24 imprisoned journalists as well as six journalists released on special parole. The latter, banned from working and at times from leaving their neighborhoods, depended on the small amounts of money CPJ was able to send. They worked with the Ladies, reporting back to us on the health of journalists behind bars and those who continued to report from Cuba. Often, they also contributed opinion pieces and savvy news reports to websites abroad.

In mid-2010, four years after CPJ began sending funds, news broke that the Cuban government and the Catholic Church had struck a deal through which political prisoners (including independent journalists) would be released and sent to Spain. After years of assistance work and heavy advocacy from CPJ’s Americas program, the news was received with joy and great relief. In small clusters, all but two of the imprisoned journalists were sent to Spain with their families. The two who insisted on staying in Cuba were released on strict parole conditions.

Simultaneously, the U.S. announced that it was softening its restrictions to Cuba, allowing easier transfers without need for a special license. Today CPJ is able to continue helping the journalists and their families, lobbying with international bodies for humanitarian assistance in Spain and covering some of the medical costs of operations for ailments acquired in prison. For those paroled inside the island, we continue to help meet everyday needs.

This entry is part of a series commemorating 10 years of CPJ’s Journalist Assistance program.