The human rights situation has not improved in the year and half Raúl Castro has been standing in as president for his ailing brother Fidel. However the form of repression has changed, to daily brutality and brief detention. Two journalists were freed in 2007 but two others were imprisoned. Three foreign journalists were forced to leave the country.
Uncertainty hangs over the Castro regime and the closely-watched foreign media has to tread carefully. The Havana correspondent of the US daily Chicago Tribune, Gary Marx, and his colleague from the Mexican daily El Universal, César Gonzáles-Calero, had their press cards cancelled on 22 February 2007 and were told to leave the country because their articles were giving a “negative image” of Cuba. The next day, BBC correspondent Stephen Gibbs was not allowed to re-enter the country and eventually had to leave his post.
Fidel Castro, still in hospital a year and a half after stepping down temporarily, said at the end of 2007 he was ready to give up power. Civil liberties and human rights will wait, probably well after single-party elections expected in 2008. Raúl Castro, who took over from his elder brother on 26 July 2006, is reportedly planning a Chinese-style move towards economic liberalism.
On the repression front, only the methods changed. About 80 physical attacks, threats, arrests and unannounced searches involving journalists were recorded in 2007. The regime no longer stages major trials of dissidents but uses routine brutality. Six journalists - including Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez, correspondent for the websites Payolibre and Nueva Prensa and for Radio Martí - were among some 30 government opponents arrested at a peaceful demonstration in Havana on 27 September to support political prisoners. They were freed the next day. Guerra Pérez was jailed in July 2005 after an earlier dissident protest, and on 9 May 2007 he completed a 22-month prison sentence for “disturbing the peace.” His trial took place three months before he was freed. Armando Betancourt Reina, of Nueva Prensa Cubana and founder of the small underground paper El Camagueyano, was released on 20 August after 15 months in prison, also learned he had been convicted of “disturbing the peace” just a few weeks before his release.
“Pre-criminal danger to society”
Two new imprisonments preceded these two releases, keeping the number of journalists in jail at 24 and ensuring the country remained the world’s second biggest prison for journalists after China. Raymundo Perdigón Brito, of the Yayabo Press agency, had already been imprisoned for four years on 5 December 2006 for being a “pre-criminal danger to society.” Ramón Velázquez Toranso, of the Libertad agency, was sentenced on 23 January 2007 to three years in prison for the same offence. This accusation, often used against dissidents, allows them to be arrested and jailed as a “potential risk” to society. Oscar Sánchez Madán, a regular correspondent for the website Cubanet, was arrested by state security police and sentenced on 13 April in the absence of a lawyer to four years in prison for the same reason. He was the third journalist imprisoned since Raúl Castro took over and staged a hunger-strike in January 2008.
Twenty of the 27 journalists arrested in the “black spring” crackdown of March 2003 continue to serve their sentences of between 14 and 27 years in prison, along with Alberto Gil Triay Casales, founder of the news centre La Estrella Solitaria, who has been in jail since 2005. They are still being ill-treated and deprived of healthcare and some have gone on hunger-strike, including Iván Hernández Carrillo, of the Pátria agency, Pedro Argüelles Morán, head of the Cooperativa Avileña de Periodistas Independientes (CAPI), and Normando Hernández González, head of the Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de Camagüey (CPIC), who is in very poor health. A member of the Costa Rican parliament, José Manuel Echandi, arranged for humanitarian exile in Costa Rica for Hernández González but the Cuban authorities have ignored the offer.
Three imprisoned journalists supported by media outlets through Reporters Without Borders are in poor condition. Fabio Prieto Llorente, in jail on his native Isle of Youth and kept in isolation for 23 hours a day, is not getting treatment for lung problems. Another, Miguel Galván Gutiérrez, is seriously ill and was transferred on 15 June 2007 from Agüica prison to one in Guanajay, near the capital. The Reporters Without Borders correspondent and founder of De Cuba magazine, Ricardo González Alfonso, was taken to hospital again on 13 September in the Combinado del Este prison in Havana for circulatory and digestive problems. The country’s jails hold 246 political prisoners, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN).
The Internet “a tool of global extermination”
The US embargo against Cuba that prevents the country connecting to the Internet through undersea cables has slowed Internet growth because the government has to use costly and less efficient satellite connections. But communications minister Ramiro Valdés spelled out the government’s attitude in early 2007 by calling Internet technologies “a tool for global extermination” and a “wild colt” that “must be controlled.” The regime ensures that the Internet is not used for “counter-revolutionary” purposes and private connections are practically banned. Cubans usually go to tourist hotels to read their e-mail or surf the Web, risking five years in prison for doing so. Internet cafés are very easily spied on by the authorities and the government relies on self-censorship.