President Fidel Castro’s stepping-aside in favour of his brother Raúl did not reduce pressure on the independent media and 24 journalists remain in prison. One of them, Guillermo Fariñas Hernández, staged several hunger strikes over seven months, calling for free Internet access for all Cubans. He was awarded the Reporters Without Borders Cyber-freedom Prize.
Will defence minister and army commander Raúl Castro allow more basic freedoms after taking over from his ailing brother as acting president on 31 July 2006. So far the regime has continued hounding dissidents, especially independent journalists. Cuba is still the world’s second biggest prison for journalists. Two were freed in 2006 but this was quickly made up for by the jailing of two others, making a total of 24 being held.
Lamasiel Gutiérrez Romero, correspondent for the website Nueva Prensa Cubana on the Isle of Youth, was freed on 22 March from Mantonegro prison in Havana province after serving a seven-month sentence for “civil disobedience and resistance.” She returned to her home on the Isle of Youth under heavy police surveillance and was banned from leaving the island. Oscar Mario González Pérez, co-founder of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro agency, was freed on 20 November after 16 months in prison without trial. He had been arrested on the eve of a demonstration by dissidents in Havana in July 2005 and was never charged with anything.
Armando Betancourt, a freelance working with the Nueva Prensa Cubana agency and editor of a small underground magazine, El Camagueyano, was arrested on 23 May by state security police in Camagüey and sent a week later to a police station where he was put in solitary confinement and not allowed any visitors. He too has never been charged.
Just after Raymundo Perdigón Brito started up a small news agency, Yayabo Press, with his sister on 17 November, he was arrested and given a four-year prison sentence on 5 December for “socially dangerous behaviour before an offence” by the provincial court in the central province of Sancti Spíritus. Ahmed Rodríguez Albacia, 22, of the Jóvenes sin Censura agency, also refused to drop his journalistic activities and was held from 4 to 12 December at state security headquarters in Havana.
Arrests and short arbitrary detentions (about 30) during the second half of the year exceeded the number of routine threats and physical attacks. Odelín Alfonso, correspondent for Cubanet, and Milisa Valle Ricardo, of Jóvenes sin Censura, were held for a day on 13 September in police stations in Havana and the eastern city of Holguín. The same thing happened on 2 November to Roberto Santana Rodríguez, a Havana freelance for Cubanet, who had been summoned twice before by police in February and April. In Santiago de Cuba, Guillermo Espinosa Rodríguez, of the Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental (APLO), was put under house arrest for two years for “socially dangerous behaviour.”
Pressure was maintained on those rounded up in the March 2003 crackdown, both the 20 journalists still in prison and those who have been freed for health reasons. Independent journalists Oscar Espinosa Chepe and Jorge Olivera Castillo, released in 2004 and forbidden to leave the country, had to appear before a Havana court, one for a “political check” and one for another matter.
José Ubaldo Izquierdo Hernández, of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro, was declared “unfit for detention” by a prison doctor because of his very poor health, but was not released. Normando Hernández González, head of the Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de Camagüey, was taken to hospital on 5 December with cellular tuberculosis and sent back to jail three weeks after. Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, of APLO, and Fabio Prieto Llorente were repeatedly beaten by their guards. Alberto Gil Triay Casales, of the La Estrella Solitaria agency, who was given a seven-year prison
sentence in November 2005 for “subversive propaganda,” went on hunger-strike in September.
With less than 2 per cent of its population online, Cuba is one of the most backward Internet countries. An investigation carried out by Reporters Without Borders in October revealed that the Cuban government uses several levers to ensure that this medium is not used in a “counter-revolutionary” way. Firstly, it has more or less banned private Internet connections. To surf the Internet or check their e-mail, Cubans have to go to public access points such as Internet cafes, universities and “youth computer clubs” where their activity is more easily monitored. Secondly, the computers in all the Internet cafes and leading hotels contain software installed by the Cuban police that triggers an alert message whenever “subversive” key-words are spotted. The regime also ensures that there is no Internet access for dissidents and independent journalists, for whom communicating with people abroad is an ordeal. Finally, the government also relies on self-censorship. You can get 20 years in prison for writing “counter-revolutionary” articles for foreign websites. You can even get five years just for connecting to the Internet illegally. Few Internet users dare to run the risk of defying the regime’s censorship.
Guillermo Fariñas Hernández, head of the Cubanacán Press agency in Santa Clara, staged several hunger-strikes to support his demand for all Cubans to be allowed free access to the Internet. He was awarded the Reporters Without Borders - Fondation de France Cyber-freedom Prize on 12 December.