Cuba's fledging independent press survived an extremely difficult year marked by persistent government harassment, periodic crackdowns, and grave financial need. Unrelenting government pressure forced several of the most important journalists on the island into exile; those who stayed face frequent detentions, occasional imprisonment, and the risk of physical harm.

Fidel Castro's communist regime controls all media outlets. Members of the independent press evade the restrictions by dictating stories over the telephone to colleagues outside the country. The stories, which range from political commentaries to reports on human rights abuses, are circulated on the Internet and published in newspapers in Miami and in Europe. While some Cuban journalists identify themselves as dissidents, others perceive themselves as media professionals whose sole interest is to publish their reports.

The independent journalism movement seemed to gain strength until early 1996, when Cuban MIGs shot down two private planes piloted by exiles from Miami. After the U.S. government denounced the attack and imposed economic sanctions on Cuba, the Cuban government began a crackdown on dissidents, particularly independent journalists. Throughout 1997, journalists were detained, arrested, and occasionally beaten, especially preceding major political events such as the Communist Youth Festival in July and the Communist Party Congress in October.

This pattern was repeated in the months leading up to Pope John Paul II's visit to the island in January 1998, but the government backed off as the international visitors arrived.

In order to suppress the flow of information from the island, the Cuban government appears to have created a special task force within the State Security Agency charged with controlling the independent press. A State Security agent, who gives his name as "Aramís," has been involved in nearly every detention of an independent journalist and has been present during nearly every interrogation. He has told journalists that he is in charge of the crackdown.

In August, CPJ sent a letter to President Castro after a number of journalists were detained and interrogated. One such incident took place on July 16, when Luis López Prendes, a reporter with the Independent Press Bureau of Cuba (BPIC) in Havana, was detained by State Security for unspecified "criminal acts." During his three-day detention, authorities interrogated López Prendes three times about why he had reported on five explosions at tourist hotels in July and August soon after the blasts. The case was particularly troubling because López Prendes was released briefly on July 18 and detained again the following night after speaking by telephone to a CPJ researcher.

In many ways, journalists in Cuba are confronting the kind of obstacles that were common throughout Latin America 20 years ago when journalists who published stories critical of the government faced virtually certain reprisal. While there has been a dramatic press opening across the region, state-sponsored repression has thwarted the development of an independent press in Cuba. Although the methods of repression are not as violent in Cuba as elsewhere in Latin America--no journalist has been murdered in Cuba in the last decade-the effect is the same. Journalists who publish outside Cuba can be prosecuted for a variety of crimes, from defamation to aiding the enemy.

Cuba and Peru are the only two countries in Latin America where journalists continue to be jailed in reprisal for their work. On July 12, journalist Lorenzo Páez Nuñez, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for defaming the National Police. Páez had reported for Radio Martí--the U.S. government's Office of Cuban Broadcasting, which broadcasts to Cuba--that a police officer had allegedly killed a young man during a harvest celebration in Havana Province. He was arrested on July 10 and sentenced after a one-day trial. He was denied legal representation. In another case, journalist Bernado Arévalo Padrón was sentenced to six years in prison for an article that allegedly insulted Fidel Castro.