Area: 110,860 sq.km.
Head of state: President Fidel Castro
"I want to continue my journalism. Prison hasn’t put me off," said dissident writer and poet Raúl Rivero when he was freed on 30 November 2004. Writing, he added, was like breathing for him, not just a right.
Five other journalists and eight dissidents out of 75 arrested in March 2003 were freed during the year for health reasons but on terms that made them liable to be summarily returned to jail at the whim of the authorities. A seventh journalist, Carlos Alberto Domínguez González, arrested in February 2002, was also released for health reasons.
All were freed partly as the result of international protests, especially sanctions against Cuba by the European Union (EU), that were sparked by the wave of arrests. The releases were seen as a goodwill gesture to EU members such as Spain that are pushing for an immediate change in EU policy towards Cuba. The 25 EU countries started to question the sanctions on 14 December 2004, thereby risking loss of a weapon to press for release of the other prisoners. Arrests of dissidents meanwhile continued.
The freeing of the prisoners was also due to a tireless campaign by their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, organised in a group called "The Ladies in White." "Today, I’m just Blanca’s husband," joked Rivero the day he emerged from prison.
His wife, Blanca Reyes, and the other women have decided to defy the machinery of repression. In early October, they camped out in Havana’s Revolution Square, where the regime organises its mass demonstrations, to demand that Angel Moya, a human rights activist among the jailed 75, be transferred to hospital for treatment. Every Sunday they assemble peacefully at the door of the church of Santa Rita, the patron saint of lost causes.
The protest is similar to that of the so-called "Mad Women of the Plaza de Mayo," in Buenos Aires - the mothers of people who disappeared under the Argentine military dictatorship. The comparison is irksome for the regime, which tries to silence them. In early December, Laura Pollán, wife of imprisoned journalist Hector Maseda, at whose home "The Ladies in White" meet each month, said her phone was often cut off and that she had found a hidden microphone in the house.
"Inhuman prison conditions"
22 journalists are still in jail, including Ricardo González, the local Reporters Without Borders correspondent. They were accused of "undermining national independence" and "subversion," each sentenced to between 14 and 27 years in prison and then transferred to jails several hundred kilometres from their home towns. Their families are only allowed to visit once every three months, instead of the usual every three weeks.
One of them, Carlos Brizuela Yera, is not part of the 75 arrested in 2003. He was picked up in March 2002 for protesting against brutal police treatment of a journalist colleague and sentenced to three years in prison on 26 April 2004.
"I spent 15 months in the lavatories of a barracks," journalist Manuel Vázquez Portal told the French daily Le Monde after being freed on 23 June. "The first months were very hard, especially solitary confinement. I didn’t see or speak to anyone and it was hard to keep from going crazy."
Another released journalist, Jorge Olivera, told Reporters Without Borders that "prison conditions are inhuman and cause psychological and physical damage. Sometimes the food is rotten and the water bad. I caught amoeba and you also have to fight clouds of mosquitoes, as well as cockroaches, rats, ants, bees and flies. The toilets are just a hole in the ground. We were only allowed out for an hour each day into a small yard where sometimes you couldn’t see the sun."
Olivera was the last journalist to be freed, on 6 December. Like all the others, after a long time in solitary confinement he was put in a cell with common criminals, who were routinely used by the prison authorities to harass the political prisoners.
Those who are ill do not always get the care they need. Julia Nuñez, wife of Adolfo Fernández Saínz, is worried about here husband’s many ailments - emphysema, a kidney cyst, a stomach hernia, prostate shrinkage, high blood pressure and osteoarthritis. He has also lost more than 20 kgs.
A media "totally at the service of the workers"
The press freedom situation is still disastrous. Article 53 of the national constitution bans privately-owned media, "which ensures they are exclusively used to serve the workers and the interests of society." The government-controlled press only carries propaganda articles and reports that are chosen, checked and edited according to the regime’s ideological line. This censorship is done by the Department of Revolutionary Guidance, an organ of the ruling Communist Party’s central committee.
The regime refuses to allow the official news provided to Cubans to be mixed up with any from other sources. Journalists who try to operate outside the state-run media are constantly hounded by the state security police (DES). Since the 2003 arrests, they too have been threatened with jail. But despite the repression, nearly 80 of them regularly send articles to magazines abroad and to Miami-based Internet websites such as cubanet.org and nuevaprensa.org.
News from outside the country is also monitored.
Broadcasts of the Miami-based US government-funded Radio Martí are jammed. People with secret TV receivers that can pick up foreign stations are regularly punished and the equipment seized. The foreign press is only available to tourists and diplomats.
Articles and reports by locally-based foreign journalists are read after they appear and their authors warned if Castro does not like the content. This has long earned him a place on the Reporters Without Borders worldwide list of "predators of press freedom."
US President Georges W. Bush tightened the US embargo in May 2004 by cutting the number of trips US-residing Cubans were allowed to make to their country and limiting their right to send money to Cuba to just close relatives. The economically-weakened regime responded on 1 November by banning the US dollar. The government’s aim seemed to be to collect dollars by forcing Cubans to exchange them for convertible pesos.
Major trade agreements signed at the end of the year with China and Venezuela were expected to give the regime some respite. Also, despite Bush’s latest measures, the embargo has been considerably relaxed since the US senate in 2001 allowed farm products to be sold to Cuba for cash. The country has bought more than $1 billion worth of them from American firms since 2002, making the US its main food supplier.
"There won’t be a democratic change any time soon," Rivero told Reporters Without Borders two days after he was freed. And indeed the official media predicted on 1 January 2005 "another year of struggle" as usual.
22 journalists were in prison
11 physically attacked
and 10 threatened
"Inhuman" prison conditions
Jorge Olivera Castillo, 41, headed the Havana Press news agency when he was sentenced to 18 years in prison on 5 April 2003 for "undermining national unity and the economy." He was freed for health reasons on 6 December 2004.
What happened at your trial?
It was absurd. Before our lawyers put their case, they had to declare their support for the government. My wife chose my lawyer because I didn’t trust the authorities. But everything was fixed in advance anyway. We’d all been found guilty before the trial began.
What were your conditions of detention like?
Inhuman. I spent eight months in solitary confinement. Sometimes the food was rotten and the water bad. I caught amoeba and you also have to fight clouds of mosquitoes, as well as cockroaches, rats, ants, bees and flies. The toilets are just a hole in the ground. Prisoners are usually let out of their cells for two hours a day, Monday to Friday, but we were only allowed out for an hour, one after the other into a small yard where sometimes you couldn’t see the sun."
Can you imagine what it’s like to spend all that time in a 3 x 1.3-metre cell more than 900 km from your hometown with only one family visit every three months? They wanted to break our spirit. I managed to resist but some of the others had psychological problems. I had (and still do) spasmodic colitis, high blood-pressure, a stomach hernia and gastric problems.
How did you get on with the common law prisoners?
I shared a cell with some for nearly three months in the first year. Long-term prisoners who were very touchy and could quickly turn dangerous. They were sometimes used by the authorities to taunt the political prisoners, who they hit or stole from and were then rewarded with an extra family visit. I had to use a lot of psychological tricks.
Why do you think you were released?
Several reasons. My health, but also external pressure from Reporters Without Borders and many other bodies and governments around the world. We may also have been freed as a sop to the European Union.
What are you going to do now?
I’ve had a visa for the United States since 2002 and I want to go. But the Cuban government can still stop you leaving the country. It’s outrageous to have to ask permission to leave and even to have to pay for it. Many Cubans are in this situation. They’ve got a visa but they’re not allowed to go. I don’t know what the future holds but I want to go abroad with my family. I just have to wait for the government to decide.
"The pressure hasn’t let up"
Jesús Alvarez Castillo is correspondent in Ciego de Avila for the news agency Cuba Press and representative in the province of the Manuel Marquez Sterling Association of independent journalists. He tells how he has been hounded by the authorities since the March 2003 wave of dissident arrests.
Police pressure on me hasn’t let up since the crackdown, which led to heavy prison sentences for independent journalists. Just a few days after the verdicts were announced against the 75 dissidents on trial, three state security police turned up at my home and threatened to cut off my apartment owner’s phone line, saying I’d been using it to send "counter-revolutionary" news to the United States.They took away my fax.
A few days later, I was arrested by the secret police near the home of a dissident I was going to see in Miraflores Nuevo, in Ciego de Avila province, and they told me to leave the town at once. The secret police searched my home and my sister’s on 29 October and seized more than 300 books, as well as articles and magazines I’d been given by the US Interests Section (diplomatic office) in Havana.
Not long afterwards, I was arrested at the house of a fellow independent journalist, Héctor Riverón González, in Las Tunas province. Two state security police forbade me to return to the province because they said I’d come to engage in "counter-revolutionary" activities. They drove me to Camagüey and put me into a second police car that took me back to Ciego de Ávila.
I returned to Las Tunas province on 12 July last year to see my friend again. Two days later, the same state security police took Héctor and I to their local headquarters, where they confronted me with several news items I’d sent to Radio Martí and the website nuevaprensa.org to show me how closely they were watching me. The same day they ordered me to return to Ciego de Avila.
Over the next few months I has harassed by phone. When I called Radio Martí and nuevaprensa.org in Florida, I heard noise on the line or else I was cut off. But phone links have got much better recently and I’ve been able to talk to some of the political detainees in prison. The phone is the only tool I have to work as a journalist.