Newly freed Cuban journalists and their families on a bus taking them from Madrid Barajas Airport. (AP/Victor R. Caivano)

In Cuban releases, difficult choices, moral dilemmas

By Borja Bergareche/CPJ European Consultant on July 14, 2010 1:35 PM ET

The Havana government has not explicitly demanded that political prisoners go into exile as a condition of release, but it’s clear that’s what Cuban authorities want. The first journalists and dissidents to be freed from jail were immediately whisked away to Spain, which, along with the Catholic Church, had negotiated for their freedom. That leaves political prisoners with a terrible dilemma: fly to Spain or stay in jail, at least for a while. Thus emerges a moral dimension when assessing news of up to 52 Cuban prisoners, including numerous journalists, being released in the coming weeks. Can a human being live happily in a land he or she never chose? Will they find in Spain, or in some other foreign country, the paradise of freedom they deserve?

In February 2008, the diplomatic efforts of the Spanish government and pressure from press freedom groups such as CPJ forced the Cuban government to release four prisoners. Two independent journalists, Alejandro González Raga and José Gabriel Ramón Castillo, together with Pedro Pablo Álvarez and Omar Pernet, left their Cuban jails on February 16 and landed at Madrid Barajas Airport two days later. In March 2007, a CPJ delegation met several times with officers of the human rights unit of the Spanish Foreign Ministry and with Trinidad Jimenez, secretary of state for Ibero America at the Spanish Foreign Ministry. We provided them with detailed information on the status of all imprisoned Cuban journalists.

CPJ interviewed the two journalists in March 2008. Still under a cultural and psychological shock, and following intense medical care in Madrid due to the deterioration of their health during seven years in prison, both expressed hopes of a better life in Spain. They indeed received help from local authorities, the Red Cross, and organizations such as CPJ, but Spain has not turned out to be the paradise of freedom they had hoped. González Raga bluntly stated in a video interview published by the Spanish daily ABC: “Today, I’d choose to stay in Cuba, in jail, but it no longer matters.” More than two years after his exile started, Alejandro has not found a job yet. His wife, Berta, who worked for more than 20 years as an accounting clerk in Cuba, remains unemployed. So do their 20-, 23-, and 24-year-old sons, who live with them in Madrid.

Journalist José Luis García Paneque is emaciated after years of mistreatment in Cuban prisons. (AP/Arturo Rodriguez).

Which reality can the newly freed journalists and dissidents expect in Madrid? The Spanish Red Cross said in a statement that the seven freed thus far were “very tired” on the arrival Tuesday in Madrid, where they were taken to a hotel in Vallecas, a popular neighborhood. They will receive complete care, said José Javier Sánchez Espinosa, a Red Cross official. But the severe economic crisis in Spain, which has a 20 percent unemployment rate, will make it very hard for these “immigrants” to find a job and make their own living.

The Spanish government and the Catholic Church, the two negotiating partners with the Castro regime, now have a political and moral responsibility for the fate of these exiled Cubans. The Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, has made a personal quest out of freeing “all political prisoners in Cuban jails,” as he stated Tuesday in parliament. His policy of rapprochement with the Castros has faced opposition from several EU member states, and even Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero remains much more cautious on the issue. They have at the other end of the table a harsh regime that has cleverly engaged the West when needed, opening and closing the tap of freedom to better serve its number one goal: the regime´s survival.

(Reporting from Madrid)

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