Country Summary

Cuba’s fledgling independent press movement suffered an unrelenting wave of harassment by Cuban state security police but still managed to survive a crucial year, recruiting many new members and publishing articles regularly in the United States and Latin America.

Journalists within Cuba’s official government news organizations also began to collaborate with the independent press, albeit anonymously, for fear of losing their jobs. By the end of 1996, there were eight groups of independent journalists, four operating in Havana and four others in provincial regions

The year began with the Cuban government’s large-scale crackdown in January against “Concilio Cubano,” an umbrella group of various pro-democracy organizations. Authorities detained dozens of human rights advocates and independent journalists, searched their homes, and confiscated typewriters, foreign publications, and correspondence.

Conditions for the independent press worsened in the wake of the Cuban air force’s downing of two private aircraft flown by Cuban-Americans opposed to the Castro regime on Feb. 24, killing all four people aboard. In a speech the following month, Vice President Raúl Castro told the Communist Party Central Committee that the regime would not tolerate any democratic opening and absolutely no press freedom. “This so-called glasnost that undermined the Soviet Union and other socialist countries consisted of handing over the mass media, one by one, to the enemies of socialism,” Castro said. “Cubans maintain and will maintain that a really free press is one serving the people, not the exploiters waiting to ambush from Miami.”

Two independent journalists were forced into exile after state security police issued a verbal ultimatum that they either leave the country or face prison sentences for their activities. Rafael Solano, the director of Havana Press, was incarcerated for 42 days. He was released on April 8, following a campaign for his release by CPJ and other press freedom organizations. A month later, he left Cuba for exile in Spain. Roxana Valdivia, a founder of the agency Patria, in Ciego de Avila, left for exile in Miami on June 4, after she had been threatened with incarceration.

Cuba’s state security apparatus attempted to marginalize independent journalists through a campaign of threats of reprisal that targeted family members as well as supportive neighbors and colleagues. The extraordinary pressure and harassment is intended to take a psychological toll on the journalists and to ruin them financially.

A debate has emerged among journalists over their role in Cuba’s political future. Many reject the label “dissident” and strive to professionalize journalism with an eye toward the post-Castro era. This debate has spilled over into the journalists’ often-contentious relationship with Radio Martí, the U.S. government’s Office of Cuban Broadcasting which broadcasts to Cuba. Several unpaid stringers for the station have charged that Radio Martí has censored their reports, fueling the resentment of those journalists who feel the U.S. government is using them as political pawns.

One of the Cuban government’s most common harassment techniques has been the suspension of telephone service, sometimes for weeks at a time, as an apparent reprisal for reporting activities. Independent journalists are also denied access to facsimile machines and computer modems.

In addition, state security police confiscated articles, manuscripts, foreign publications, typewriters, and writing materials, including pens, from several journalists. Harassment also took a new, troubling turn in July when police detained a member of the Cuba Press agency and stole $700 in cash he had received from the French press group, Reporters Without Borders.

Despite all these government hurdles, the four Havana-based news agencies—Independent Press Agency of Cuba (APIC), the Independent Press Bureau of Cuba (BPIC), Cuba Press, and Havana Press—continued to operate and disseminate news articles through representatives in Miami and Puerto Rico. In addition, four new independent press agencies were formed in 1996 in provincial areas: Agencia Centro Norte del Pais (CNP) in Villa Clara; Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental (APLO) in Santiago de Cuba; Patria, in Camaguey and Ciego de Avila; and Pinar Press, in Pinar del Rio. And, in a real triumph over the Castro regime’s repressive agenda, the news agencies’ U.S. supporters succeeded in widely distributing their Cuban colleagues’ articles through various World Wide Web sites. (See special report on Cuba)

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