There has been no improvement in the human rights and press freedom situation in Cuba since Raúl Castro took over from his older brother Fidel as acting President of the Council of State a year ago, on 31 July 2006, Reporters Without Borders said as Cuba today celebrated the 54th anniversary of a rebel attack on the Moncada Barracks.
With Fidel Castro still hospitalized, Raúl presided over today’s ceremonies, which commemorate an armed action that is regarded as the first step in a revolution that led to the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship six years later.
Since Raúl became acting president, three journalists have been imprisoned and some 40 others and been subjected to searches, summonses for questioning by the political police, physical attacks or threats.
“One dictatorship succeeded another in the 1959 Cuban revolution,” Reporters Without Borders said. “And now, the first year of Raúl Castro’s presidency has not resulted in any significant change either. The repressive methods have evolved slightly, going from massive round-ups and Stalinist trials to everyday brutality against dissidents, but Cuba continues to be the world’s second biggest prison for journalists.”
The press freedom organisation added: “Raúl Castro’s tentative desire for an ‘opening’ has never been translated into action. Under Spain’s aegis, there has been a return to dialogue with the Cuban government, but the international community must clearly raise the issue of free expression. There will be no progress if the taboos remain in place.”
Oscar Sánchez Madan, the correspondent of the Cubanet website in Matanzas (the province just to the east of Havana), was sentenced to four years in prison in a trial held behind closed doors on 13 April, immediately after his arrest. His family was unable to attend the trial and he did not have a lawyer.
Raymundo Perdigón Brito, one of the founders of the independent Yayabo Press agency, was given a four-year jail term following his arrest on 29 November 2006. Ramón Velázquez Toranso of the Libertad news agency was arrested on 23 January 2007 and was sentenced to three years in prison. He went on hunger strike in February.
All three of these journalists were convicted of being a “pre-criminal social danger,” a provision of the Cuban criminal code that allows the authorities to arrest and imprison anyone on the sole grounds of the “potential” threat they pose. The procedure is used as tool for cracking down on dissidents.
A fourth journalist, Armando Betancourt Reina, the editor of the underground newspaper El Camagüeyano, had been arrested on 23 May 2006. He was finally tried a year later and sentenced to 15 months in prison for “public disorder.” Discounting the time spent in pre-trial detention, he should be freed next month.
According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (a group that is illegal but tolerated by the government), Cuba currently has a total of 246 prisoners of conscience including 25 dissident journalists.
Twenty of them - including Reporters Without Borders correspondent Ricardo González Alfonso, the founder of the magazine De Cuba - were arrested during the “Black Spring” crackdown of March 2003 and were given sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years in prison. They continue to be mistreated by prison guards and held in cells that are unfit for habitation, and their health has suffered as a result.