Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, the longest-detained of the four journalists in prison in Cuba, begins his sixth year in jail today.
The Cuban constitution grants the state monopoly control of the media. About 100 other independent journalists like the 37-year-old Arévalo Padrón (photo) who are grouped in 20 or so news agencies the authorities refuse to recognise are trying to exercise their right to inform the public.
They are constantly harassed. Their equipment is seized, pressure exerted on their families and they are summoned or arrested by the police. Arévalo Padrón’s imprisonment for the past five years is a constant reminder to those who refuse to be silenced or go into exile abroad that they are risking heavy prison sentences.
Arévalo Padrón was convicted on 31 October 1997, arrested on 18 November and sentenced on appeal 10 days later to six years in prison for having called President Fidel Castro and Vice-President Carlos Lage "liars" on Radio Martí, the US-funded radio station beaming programmes to Cuba. He accused them of not keeping their promise to respect parliamentary democracy, basic freedoms and human rights contained in the final declaration signed by all countries, including Cuba, that attended the 1996 Ibero-American summit of Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese heads of government.
At the end of 1998, after a visit by the Pope to Cuba, Arévalo Padrón’s sentence was reduced by a month for "good behaviour" (each prisoner can earn two months a year in this way). Since then, the prison authorities have not granted him any early release or further reduction in sentence because of his alleged "failure to cooperate with his re-education programme." He is due to be freed on 17 October 2003.
Before he was arrested, he had written an article for the Linea Sur Press news agency, which he founded, about military involvement in the secret slaughter of cattle near his home town of Aguada de Pasajeros, in the central province of Santa Clara. Fellow journalists say this may have been the real reason for his arrest. Secretly killing livestock carries a 10-year prison sentence.
Arévalo Padrón is being held at Ariza prison (Cienfuegos province), in block 2, cell 25. His wife, Libertad Acosta Díaz, says he is not in good health and suffers from migraine and high blood pressure. He has a persistent cold and needs vitamin C and conditions of detention there are very difficult, she says.
Judging by his letters to them, his friends fear for his mental health. "He has changed a lot and his family will hardly recognise him when he is freed," said one. His relationship with other prisoners is difficult. Some make his life impossible so as to win minor privileges from the prison authorities. In the hope of getting early release, common law prisoners recently stole his personal belongings and letters and gave them to the police. The guards encourage them to harass "the counter-revolutionary" on grounds that he is harming the prison’s reputation and their professional grading.
Arévalo Padrón’s wife can visit him every three weeks. "You get there at 8 in the morning and wait half an hour in a canteen while all packages are thoroughly examined," she says. "A soldier then leads all everyone into the visiting room, which is a kind of dining hall with a long cement table in the middle with concrete benches. The prisoners arrive at 9 through a steel door. The roof is leaky, so you have to find a place where you don’t get rained on. People are grouped in families and it’s very noisy. You almost have to shout to be heard."
She brings him food that keeps, such as cheese, sugar, powdered drinks and bread. Also lots of cigarettes. "Bernardo doesn’t smoke, but it’s something to trade with other prisoners," she says.
Three other independent journalists are in prison in Cuba - Carlos Alberto Domínguez, of the Cuba Verdad agency, Carlos Brizuela Yera, who works with the Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de Camaguey (CPIC), and Léxter Tellez Castro, of the Agencia de Prensa Libre Avileńa (APLA). All are thought to have been arrested mainly because of their campaigning for human rights. From prison, some of them have been able to continue their journalistic work to some extent by sending out news of prison conditions.