Reporters Without Borders notes with regret that the Cuban government has stubbornly refused to release 23 arbitrarily detained journalists, including its correspondent Ricardo González Alfonso, in the 12 months since Raúl Castro was confirmed as President of the Council of State on 24 February 2008, 19 months after taking over provisionally from his ailing elder brother Fidel.
There have been a few signs of a political opening-up in the past year but, in all, Cuba continues to hold around 200 political prisoners. The press freedom organisation calls for the continuation of diplomatic efforts that could help change this situation and, in particular, the lifting of the US embargo of Cuba that has been in place since 1962.
“Nineteen of the 23 journalists currently imprisoned in Cuba for their opinions and their reports were arrested in the ‘Black Spring’ crackdown of 2003 and will begin their seventh year in detention on 18 March,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This situation is all the more absurd and cruel as the authorities have agreed to release or, on health grounds, suspend the sentences of some of the 75 dissidents arrested in that crackdown.
“It also stands in complete contradiction to the intentions manifested by the government when it signed two UN human rights conventions and partially liberalised the communications sector. The government cannot keep on evading this contradiction as it tries to consolidate its diplomatic ties and extricate Cuba from its isolation.
“We again call on the countries engaged in a dialogue with Cuba, especially its Latin American partners, to step up their mediation on behalf of the imprisoned journalists in the name of the free expression that is recognised everywhere else in the hemisphere. In this respect, we think it is necessary that the United State lift the embargo impose 47 years ago on Cuba. Condemned by virtually the entire international community, this embargo just bolsters the regime while penalising the population.”
Raúl Castro took over at the head of the Council of State nine days after four of the “Black Spring detainees,” including independent journalist Alejandro González Raga and José Gabriel Ramón Castillo, the editor of a dissident socio-cultural magazine, were released as a result of Spanish government mediation and flew to Spain.
Shortly after Raúl Castro’s installation, the Cuban government signed two UN human rights conventions, one concerning economic, social and cultural rights, the other concerning civil and political rights. A year later, neither of these treaties has been ratified.
As soon as he was installed, Raúl Castro lifted the ban which until then had barred Cubans entering the country’s luxury hotels with better Internet connections, although their prices are prohibitive in a country where the average salary is about 13 dollars a month. Other measures followed in the communications domain, including legalisation of the acquisition of personal computers and mobile phones.
These changes have in no way diminished the government’s repressive attitude towards those who try to circulate news and information that it does not control. Online activity continues to be monitored and the Internet is regularly blocked.
Internet access nonetheless also suffers from major technical difficulties resulting from communications restrictions imposed by the US embargo. This led Michael Parmly, then head of the US Interests Section in Havana, to urge his government on 4 July 2008 to allow Cubans to have better Internet access. His request has so far been ignored and Cuba is currently counting on Venezuela’s help to achieve this.
The softening of the US embargo announced by President Barack Obama’s new administration is expected above all to relax restrictions on visits to the island by Cuban exiles and the amount of money they can send to their relatives there.
The Cuban government made no concessions after the European Union, on 23 June 2008, definitively lifted the sanctions which it had imposed after the “Black Spring” (and soon suspended). Nonetheless, the European sanctions were, as the US embargo continues to be, a powerful argument that is used by the government to justify gagging all of its opponents.
The journalists arrested during the “Black Spring” were given sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years in prison on the spurious grounds that they were “mercenaries in the pay of the United States.” As a result of the embargo, the government is also able to cite “North American oppression” as grounds for denying its citizens access to diverse news and information.