Reporters Without Borders has welcomed the 23 June release of freelance journalist Manuel Vázquez Portal in Cuba but warned that it did not mean any improvement in the situation of press freedom under President Fidel Castro.
"This may be good news for Manuel Vázquez and his family, but it isn’t yet for press freedom," the organisation said. "Firstly, because Vázquez is threatened with being reimprisoned if he resumes his journalistic activities. Secondly, and above all, because 26 of his fellow journalists are still in prison in Cuba and the government still has a monopoly of the press."
With Vázquez, a total of 10 dissidents - three of them journalists - have been released since the start of the year. Six of them were part of the group of 75 dissidents who were rounded up in a dramatic crackdown in March 2003. Castro is on the Reporters Without Borders list of 37 predators of press freedom around the world.
"It would be a mistake to suggest that this represents any relaxation in repression in Cuba when, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), between 20 and 30 dissidents have been arrested since the start of this year," the organisation added.
Vázquez was released yesterday morning from "Boniato" prison in Santiago de Cuba province and reached his home in Havana, more than 1,000 km to the west, in the evening. For health reasons, he was given a special authorisation to return to his home that is the legal equivalent of house arrest. It is not unconditional.
The head of the CCDHRN, Elizardo Sánchez, pointed out that, under the criminal code, this special leave ends when the detainee’s health improves. Vázquez could also be reimprisoned if he went back to working as an independent journalist.
Vázquez suffers from pulmonary emphysema (a narrowing of the respiratory passages causing a lack of oxygen in the blood). He had on several occasions described his prison conditions as inhumane. The CCDHRN said the condition of his health, and that of the other released dissidents, had been considered serious since last year.
Trial and biography
Manuel Vázquez Portal had been arrested on 19 March 2003 during the Cuban "black spring" crackdown that saw 75 opposition figures arrested then sentenced to jail terms ranging from six to 28 years. He had been sentenced on 4 April 2004 to 18 years in prison by the division for state security crimes of the Havana provincial court. Vázquez Portal was accused of endangering Cuba’s independence under law 88 for writing articles for the cubanet.org website, contributing to Radio Martí, the US government radio station that beams programmes to Cuba, receiving frequent dollar transfers from the United States as payment for his articles, and meeting regularly with officials of the US interests section in Havana.
A philology graduate of Villa Clara university, a former teacher, a former literary adviser at the ministry of culture, a former journalist with the government news media (including the magazine Caimán Barbudo), Vázquez is a poet and writer who won three official prizes between 1984 and 1993 before being expelled from the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) in 1995 because of his dissident views. Co-founder in 1995 of Cuba Press and in 1997 of the Independent Journalists Cooperative, in 1998 he set up the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro, a news agency dedicated to literary and cultural news.
Vázquez Portal had been granted a political refugee visa by the United States, but the Cuban authorities did not give him an exit permit until 18 October 2002, after the US authorities had suspected "freedom flights" between Cuba and the mainland as part of the security measures adopted in the wake of 11 September 2001. Now that he has been released, Vázquez intends to set about once again taking all the necessary steps to get permission to leave the country.