Enquiry : Christian Lionet
Where news is the exclusive reserve of the State
In Cuba, the authorities are virtually sealing off the population’s access to any news source other than the official media, with the exception of Catholic publications whose readership is mostly limited to parishes and whose content is extremely cautious. The regime does, however, seem to be tolerating the activities-which it considers to be illegal-of some 100 independent journalists who are practising their profession on Cuban soil, as long as their articles remain unread by the Cuban public. The latter are released only outside of the island, through Internet websites inaccessible from Cuba, in publications issued by communities of exiled Cubans, and a few international newspapers banned in Cuba, or broadcast over Radio Martí-a U.S. government radio station whose transmissions are scrambled over Cuban territory.
As they are considered to be "counter-revolutionaries," many of these journalists are constantly harassed by the police and any of them may find themselves, without warning, subject to liberticidal laws that could impose heavy prison terms. Notwithstanding, the coercion currently exerted against these independent journalists seems to be abating somewhat.
The repressive methods used, however, have not mellowed: peremptory questionings that can last from several hours to several days, confiscation of equipment, house arrests, pressures on journalists’ families and relations, attempts to discredit them, public insults and slandering, denial of exit visas, etc.
At the present time, four journalists are behind bars. One of them is still serving a six-year prison sentence, while the other three were arrested this year. The latter were formally punished for acts of public militancy typically associated with human rights activists, and not directly for their news-reporting activities. However, they are bound to find it a challenge to keep the public informed from their prison cells. Moreover, all of them had already been subjected to pressures or brought in for questioning because of their journalistic activities. Two of them are about to be sentenced to five- and six-year prison terms. Though never arraigned, the third has been behind bars for ten months.
Of their own accord, the independent journalists concede that they are currently "benefiting" from a so-called "low-intensity" repression period, even though President Castro’s regime is still exerting its customary pressure against pro-opposition militants or human rights activists. Journalists working in rural areas are, however, in greater danger than their colleagues in the capital, where police forces are relatively more spread out and material conditions less of an issue.
In this context, the activities being carried on by independent news agencies, which currently total about 20, are constantly expanding in terms of quantity, credibility and professionalism, as measured by what they are sending over the Internet. Though there were only a handful of them in the mid-1990s, the 100 or so "free" journalists now working in Cuba provide an authentic alternative information source that has become essential to observers monitoring the country’s news events, access to which-regretfully-is still being denied to their fellow Cubans.
Prison: "rehabilitating" counter-revolutionaries
The four independent journalists currently behind bars are Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, director of the Línea Sur Press agency; Lester Téllez Castro, head of the Free Press Agency in Ceigo de Ávila (Agencia de Prensa Libre Avileña - APLA); Carlos Brizuela Yera, a member of the Camagüey Association of Independent Journalists (Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de Camagüey - CPIC); and Carlos Alberto Domínguez, of the Cuban Truth (Cuba Verdad) news agency.
A fifth journalist stands accused of a offence for which he could receive a prison term ranging from three to eight years. His name is Jesús Álvarez Castillo, a correspondent in Morón (in central Cuba’s Camagüey province), with the Cuba Press agency. He has been threatened with prison for having reported events which, on 4 March 2002, culminated in the arrest, in Ciego de Ávila, of at least 10 human rights activists, including Lester Téllez Castro and Carlos Brizuela Yera.
On that day, the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights (Fundación Cubana de Derechos Humanos - FCDH)-an illegal association-had called a meeting. Jesús Álvarez Castillo and Lester Téllez Castro, who had been assigned to cover this event for their respective agencies, were stopped and questioned by two policemen while they were on their way to the meeting. The first journalist was caught by one of the agents who struck him in the back of the neck with his hand, whereupon he blacked out. The two policemen immediately took him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a cracked neck bone. Warned by Lester Téllez Castro, the dozen or so FCDH militants formed a group and headed for the hospital, one kilometre away, where they demonstrated in the building lobby, chanting anti-government slogans. They were quickly arrested by State Security Department officers (Departamento de la Seguridad del Estado - DSE).
According to Jesús Álvarez Castillo, this was a trap designed to arrest the group in a flagrant act of civil contempt and rebellion. The journalist is certain that he was intentionally assaulted in order to entice the militants into a public area where they could be filmed and arrested. He underscored the extreme courtesy and compassion shown by the policemen who came to see him after the incidents occurred. He claimed that he was accompanied back to his home by two senior State Security officers, one of whom-a certain "Colonel Aramis"-is a native of Havana. The journalist believes that it is this very man, known in the capital to have led the crackdown against the independent press, who supposedly orchestrated the entire scheme.
On 30 July, Jesús Álvarez Castillo was informed that he would be prosecuted for refusing to be summoned as a witness in the trial of the militants arrested on 4 March. The authorities invoked Article 155 of the Cuban Penal Code on "perjury" and "refusal to testify." According to whether the court deems this to be a "simple" or "aggravated" offence, he will either be fined from 300 to 3,000 pesos (12 to 120 euros), or sentenced to a prison term of three to eight years.
Lester Téllez Castro: "An anti-social element"
Journalists Lester Téllez Castro and Carlos Brizuela Yera were therefore arrested on the grounds that they were human rights activists. On 27 August 2002, the Ciego de Ávila Prosecutor’s Office recommended that they be sentenced, respectively, to six and five years in prison for "insulting a public servant" (desacato), "causing a public disturbance" (desorden publico), "resisting authority" (resistencia) and "civil disobedience" (desobediencia). He also requested two-and-one-half year to seven-year prison terms for their companions, and four years of hard labour, without imprisonment, for the two women in the group. The group’s trial is scheduled to begin before the end of the year.
Lester Téllez Castro (photo), 27, is being held in Block 7 of Canaleta prison in Ciego de Ávila. His mother, Hildelisa Castro Campo, and his sister-in-law, Mirley Delgado Bombino-a nurse who also happens to be an APLA journalist-are allowed to visit him regularly. Lester, who has been blind in his right eye since childhood, has been complaining in the last two months that his good eye is becoming clouded and that he is experiencing signs of high blood pressure. "All lettering looks red to him," she explained, "because he is in solitary confinement (celda de aislamiento) in a cell painted entirely in white, with no window, lit day and night by a single 40-watt bulb. He is very physically affected by his surroundings."
It was at her request that Lester Téllez Castro was transferred in July to this solitary cell-the only one in the prison-where, paradoxically, he has been enjoying a modicum of comfort: a wooden board (without a pillow) that serves as his bed, a toilet that flushes and a drinking faucet open a few hours a day. In fact, he has been living in fear of being murdered by other prisoners ever since one of his co-inmates, a certain Alberto Delgado Mursuli, assured him that one of the prison’s officials had promised him certain favours if he would kill Castro.
Since May, Lester Téllez Castro has refused to eat any food supplied by the prison, which he feels is inedible, and eats nothing but the packaged food brought to him every three weeks by his family. His mother reported that he has not been receiving any medical treatment. All that he is being given is an occasional Vitamin A pill to palliate his eye trouble.
In several letters, this journalist and human rights activist has protested against his conditions of confinement in Canaleta Prison. He has undertaken several hunger strikes in an effort to have those conditions improved. But after being force-fed by intravenous serum injections he finally agreed, in mid-July, to end his latest hunger strike in exchange for an exceptional visit from his father, who resides in Miami and was in Cuba at the time.
For the last two-and-one-half years, Lester Téllez Castro has been devoting himself entirely to journalism and to the cause of human rights. Before that, he had just been released from prison after completing a six-year prison term on a burglary charge. At the time he was a troubled youth influenced by unsavoury acquaintances. Although his relatives and close friends maintain that he has been leading an exemplary existence since serving out his sentence, the latter offence is still noted in his records, which is the reason for his particularly harsh indictment.
Naturally, Cuban authorities never fail to bring up his previous criminal activities in order to discredit his efforts and are attempting to justify his incarceration to the international community. When questioned by the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, they explained that Lester Téllez Castro was "nothing but a delinquent" (...), an antisocial element, impulsive, disrespectful, and an agitator in respect of his attitude toward the authorities" who had attempted several times to illegally leave the country.
At this time, neither the journalist’s mother (who is now living in a Ciego de Ávila suburb), nor his sister-in-law, complain of any particular harassment. But Lester Téllez Castro’s domestic partner, Daymarelis Pérez, has lost her position as Programme Director at Radio Surco, a state-approved local station. The young woman is now living in a tense family environment in the home of her parents, who are militant communists. She has since joined the ranks of the APLA.
Carlos Brizuela Yera: "I am prepared to remain deprived of my rights"
Like his friend Lester, 30-year-old Carlos Brizuela Yera also has a police record. He had already been arrested for having participated in a street demonstration carrying a placard that read: "Down with Fidel!" In its response to the United Nations, the Cuban government mentioned that he had already served a four-year prison term (between 1994 and 1998) for allegedly attempted to kill a police officer. He, too, was thus accused of being a delinquent "disguised as a human rights advocate" while serving as a "mercenary" on behalf of the United States.
Carlos Brizuela Yera (photo) was incarcerated in Holguín Provisional Prison (in eastern Cuba). His
wife, Ana Peláez García, resides in Florida, in the province of Camagüey (about 80 km southeast of Ciego de Ávila) and, like Yera, used to be a FCDH activist. After visiting him this past 16 October, she was granted an "exceptional group visit" on 27 October - a privilege which guards may grant once a month, at their discretion, to groups consisting of three inmates, as a reward for good behaviour. He was denied this exceptional visit the following month because he had not participated in the meal that the prison scheduled once a month, the menu of which included chicken. Because he felt that such a menu should be the rule and not the exception, the journalist did not attend the event.
Ana Peláez García (photo) did, however, manage to see him at the end of November, during her
customary visit, then again on the 16th and two days later on 18 December, the date of their conjugal visit. "Carlos is rather thin but he is upbeat," she stated, "and he is in good health. He is sharing a
cell with five common-law inmates accused of various thefts and crimes, and they are not having any problems getting along. But the sanitary conditions are deplorable and the food is disgusting. Prisoners can only be seen by a doctor in an emergency and they receive no routine medical care."
She would like to believe that the exceptional visit that her husband was granted in October marked the start of an abatement of the pressures that have been exerted against him so far, because ever since the journalist managed to smuggle letters out of his prison exposing the living conditions imposed on the inmates, the couple has been the target of the guards’ hostility: "Both of us are being forced to totally undress before we are allowed into the visitor’s room, and have to put up with thorough body searches. They even unravel the hems of our clothes, looking for messages. The rehabilitation officer won’t even speak to me anymore." On 29 May, they were deprived of their "conjugal cottage" (a special visitors’ room where married couples can enjoy physical intimacy for three hours, once a month), because of the publication of those letters, whose contents were transmitted over Radio Marti and Internet news sites.
Ana Peláez García does not have a job. She explained that, for now, she is not being experiencing any pressures while carrying on her daily activities and neither are her sister Jacqueline or Carlos’ mother, who is employed as a guard in a sugar plant. She confirmed that her husband did attend the meeting of 4 March as an FCDH activist, and not as a journalist, which was Lester Téllez Castro’s role on that particular day. However, she emphasises that every letter which Carlos has been smuggling out of prison since his incarceration are authentic reports on the penal institution. These initiatives attest to his and his wife’s admirably positive outlook. For example, on 12 June, the accused wrote these words: "I am prepared to remain deprived of my rights in order to expose the injustices that are committed here every single day. And if making them known to the world is a crime, then I will gladly accept my punishment."
On 4 March, Ana Peláez García was arrested and detained for three days at the headquarters of the State Security judicial operations in Ciego de Ávila, after which she was held for nine days in a Camagüey prison. Released while awaiting trial, she faces a possible sentence of four years of hard labour, without imprisonment, for "resistance" and "civil disobedience." However, the court may impose a tougher penalty and sentence her to jail without parole.
"There really isn’t much difference between being in-or out-of prison."
The third journalist now incarcerated in Cuba is also both a reporter and an activist. Carlos Alberto Domínguez (photo) is the Director of the Law Institute (Instituto del Derecho) and a member of the ’Frank País’ 30 November Democratic Party (Partido Democrático 30 de Noviembre), comprised of minor opposition groups. Domínguez, 46, was arrested at his home in Arroyo Naranjo, a suburb of Havana, on 23 February 2002 by State Security agents.
Journalist with the Cuba Verdad news agency, he regularly attended masses on the 11th and 24th of every month at the San Mariano parish church in commemoration, respectively, of the 11 September terrorist attack in New York and of the death of four pilots of the Cuban-American humanitarian association, Brothers to the Rescue (Hermanos al Rescate), whose two civilian planes were shot down on 24 February 1996 by Cuban Air Force fighter pilots. During the two masses preceding his arrest, demonstrators had chanted slogans such as: "Set the political prisoners free!" and "Long live human rights!"
Consequently he was arrested in his home the day before another mass was to be held. In the document that they submitted to the United Nations, Cuban authorities explained that "his incarceration is unrelated to the exercise of freedom of religion, expression, or opinion" but to the fact that Domínguez "clearly and intentionally acted to cause public disorder and interrupt the normal course of activities furthering community interests." They also contend that he is not a journalist and that officially he only holds "a permit to be a self-employed clockmaker."
After being questioned for two days at Villa Marista, Havana’s State Security headquarters, and detained for 10 days in a police station of Havana’s Technical Investigations Department (Departamento tecnico de investigaciones - DTI), Carlos Alberto Domínguez was hospitalised on 8 March in Havana’s Carlos J. Finlay de Marianao military hospital, suffering from high blood pressure. From then on, "in view of his condition," all visits were postponed. Since 29 March, he has been behind bars in the Valle Grande "maximum security" prison, 60 km from the capital.
His political militancy had already resulted in his being arrested several times and prohibited from leaving the country, despite the fact that he, as well as his wife and their three children, have been
holding American visas since June 2000. According to his 38-year-old brother, Armando (photo), who is himself a human rights activist and former prisoner, Carlos Alberto Domínguez fasted for two days in September in protest against the imprisonment of political prisoners.
The journalist and political militant is now living in a barracks built to accommodate 80 inmates but which is now housing 130 of them, thanks to its triple-deck beds. Prisoners without a bed have to sleep on the bare cement floor. There are four squat closets and a single faucet that supplies water for one hour per day. The food is inedible: pasta and cold cereal without salt and decaying ground meat and offals.
The detainee’s health is said to be mediocre but stable. He complains of migraines, high blood pressure and gastritis. For its part, the government asserts that "Mr. Domínguez is enjoying special treatment in terms of food and medical care." On 2 December, it was learned from sources close to his family that the journalist and political militant had been transferred to the city’s Salvador Allende hospital, and placed in the section reserved for prisoners. For some time, he had been suffering from violent headaches.
His wife, Maria González, receives financial support from her family. But on 25 June, she was threatened by police officers who suspect her of having smuggled letters out of the prison-letters in which Carlos Alberto Domínguez exposed Villa Grande’s especially harsh prison conditions. Their son, who is 14, stated that he was not being discriminated against at his school, where he is considered a good student. Armando Domínguez contends that his brother and himself are determined to continue their fight: "For us, there is no prison. We are in prison outside, too. There really isn’t much difference between being in-or out-of prison."
Bernardo Arévalo Padrón is suffering from leptospirosis-a rodent disease
Of the four journalists still languishing in Cuban prisons, Bernardo Arévalo Padrón (photo), 37, is the one who has been in jail the longest.
Arrested on 18 November 1997, Bernardo Arévalo Padrón was sentenced on appeal, ten days later, to six years in prison for having called Cuban President Fidel Castro and Vice-President Carlos Lage "liars" over the airwaves of Radio Martí (a station financed by the American government to broadcast programmes to Cuba). The journalist accused the President of failing to abide by the final declaration of the 1996 Ibero-American Summit (attended by Latin American Heads of State and their Spanish and Portuguese counterparts), in which the signatories agreed to promote parliamentary democracy, basic freedoms and human rights within their respective countries.
At the end of 1998, after the Pope’s visit, Padrón’s sentence was reduced by one month "for good behaviour," rather than by the two months to which all prisoners are entitled in that capacity for each year of incarceration. Yet since then, the prison authorities have granted him neither an early release nor any further reduction of his sentence "because of his unwillingness to co-operate with the rehabilitation programme." Padrón is consequently not likely to be released until 17 October 2003.
Before his arrest, the journalist had also written an article on behalf of the Línea Sur Press agency, which he had founded, exposing the alleged involvement of the military in a clandestine slaughter of livestock in the Aguada de Pasajeros area (a province of Santa Clara, in central Cuba), where he resided. According to his journalist colleagues, this news story may have been the actual cause of his problems with the law. Clandestine slaughter is an offence punishable by a 10-year prison term.
When Bernardo Arévalo Padrón was 23 years old, he joined the State Security police. It was his duty to maintain human rights activists under surveillance. But in the mid-1990s, after his brother died-in his opinion, because of the lack of necessary medical care-he swore to spend the rest of his life fighting communism and joined one of the movements that he had once pledged to denounce. Meanwhile, he took a job as a rail operator.
Today, Bernardo is being held in Block 2, Cell 25, of the Ariza prison (in central Cuba). Judging from his letters, his friends are worried that his mental health may be deteriorating. "He has changed a great deal and his relatives will have a hard time recognising him when he is released," a close relation confided. Indeed, his relations with other inmates are not good. Some of them are making his life miserable just to earn a few minor favours from the prison guards. In the hope of earning a reduced sentence, some common-law prisoners recently stole some of his personal effects and letters and gave them to the police. The guards are also encouraging co-inmates to harass the "counter-revolutionary" and tell him that he is compromising the prison’s good reputation and their overall rating.
Padrón has been entitled to an early release since October 2000, after serving half of his original sentence. Yet in 2002, the journalist refused to file another petition because he no longer believes that his request would be granted and he cannot endure any more disappointments. However, according to his wife, Libertad Acosta Díaz, prison authorities are automatically handling this procedure for him every six months, in compliance with regulations. She nevertheless believes that this is nothing more than a psychological pressure tactic.
But is there a ray of hope? This past 18 October-for the first time since being placed behind bars-Padrón was allowed to call his wife at 10:30 a.m., while she was at her place of work, using a 20-minute telephone card that he had received in exchange for some cigarettes. The co-ordinator had given him permission (necessary for any inmate to access the telephone booth), which the journalist’s wife interprets as an encouraging sign. Padrón asked for news about his mother and his parents-in-law.
Padrón’s wife is now allowed to visit her husband every three weeks: "Visitors must arrive at 8:00 a.m. and wait in a dining hall until 8:30 a.m. while the contents of our packages are carefully inspected. A soldier then leads visitors into the visiting room, which is a sort of dining hall with a long cement table and cement benches in the centre. The prisoners are brought in at 9:00 a.m. through a steel door. The roof has holes in it and we have to find a spot safe from leaks when it rains. The people form family groups. It is all very noisy... we have to yell to make ourselves heard." The journalist also has a 10-year-old son, from a previous marriage, who lives in Camaguëy and visits him twice a year.
The package that she typically brings her husband contains food that can be preserved: cheese, sugar, beverage powder, bread, and lots of cigarettes: "Bernardo does not smoke but they can be traded."
Conjugal visits have been indefinitely suspended since 16 July 2002, because of renovations going on in the building. Each inmate’s wife is entitled to one such visit once a month in addition to her right to a regular visit. Each time, she is subjected to a very thorough body search by a female soldier, who then admits her into the "conjugal cottage" and locks the door from the outside. The inmate is then admitted. The visit lasts three hours. Fifteen minutes before the end of the session, the female guard knocks once on their door to alert the couple. The only furniture is a bed, a table and chair, and a toilet that can be flushed with a bucket, since water is only available one hour a day.
Padrón’s state of health has been seriously affected by very harsh prison conditions. Libertad says that "Bernardo suffers from migraines and high blood pressure." In early December he complained of violent fevers that were making him shake and become delirious. He was diagnosed as having leptospirosis. This infectious disease is caused by a bacteria that is borne on numerous animals, especially rodents. Contamination usually occurs through the skin or by contact with contaminated water. Although the journalist has been given antibiotics, his wife is still concerned. Antibiotic treatments are only effective when administered prior to the outbreak of the disease and in 5% of all cases, the illness can be fatal.
Mrs. Díaz is a maritime transport engineer who worked for nine years in the port of Cienfuegos. She was discharged in 1992, during the hardest times of the "special period" (in which the personnel was reduced as a result of the collapse of the USSR, Cuba’s "Big Brother"), on the pretext that she resided in Aguada de Pasajeros and no one could continue to take her to and from work. She was reassigned with a lesser status and lower salary to a position as a statistics officer with the Aguada de Pasajeros bus company. She believes that she was actually punished for being a practising Catholic. She only works when the buses are in operation. The company sometimes shuts down for over a month-during which time she receives no salary-when there is a shortage of petrol. Or else she is assigned to stay at home when there is no urgent work, during which time she receives only 65% of her monthly salary of 140 pesos (7 euros). Her job is to keep track of the number of passengers.
The daily crackdown: constant harassment
Ever since the independent press began to emerge in the early 1990s, Cuban authorities have systematically coupled lengthy incarcerations with a policy of constant harassment of independent journalists to make certain that their only options would be prison, silence, or exile. Despite the fact that this harassment has somewhat subsided and none of these journalists have been jailed since 4 March, attempts at intimidation, pressures and threats persist, particularly in the outlying provinces.
He had dared to criticise the government in his own home...
The first weapon in the harassment arsenal is an invasive surveillance of the persons concerned. Spied upon by informants working for the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (Los Comités de Defensa de la Revolución - CDR)-which are official neighbourhood watch organisations- publicly insulted, trailed by the police, and constantly threatened with reprisals, journalists have to confront pressures virtually every singleday, the purpose ofwhich is toisolate them from the rest of Cuban society.
For example,on 12 June, Marvín Hernández Monzón, a correspondent with the Cuba Press agency in Palmira (Cienfuegos), was subjected to a public session of insults by her neighbours (acto de repudio) arranged by the CDR located opposite her home. The demonstration was interrupted by a rainstorm. The journalist reported that she is also frequently watched by an informant stationed in the street who insults her on a regular basis.
Jesús Álvarez Castillo also complained of being constantly observed and slandered. He reported that a policeman told his female companion that he is a homosexual. Another officer claimed, when talking to a Canadian friend of Castillo, that the latter was working for the CIA, while a neighbour was instructed to send a letter to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to tell them that Castillo was a Cuban State Security informant who had infiltrated the opposition. "This gossip is starting to alienate my acquaintances," he said with regret. "I have renounced any kind of romantic relationship so as to avoid compromising anyone and giving them any way to pressure me," he explained. Mario Enrique Mayo, the head of the Félix Varela news agency in Camagüey, on the other hand, was summoned by police on 2 October after a neighbour reported to the CDR that he had spoken aloud some critical statements about the government.
Independent journalists are also repeatedly arrested or frequently summoned by the police. In all, 29 arrests were recorded in 2001, and almost 40 since 1st January 2002. Even if they do not lead to imprisonment, these short-term stays in police stations are designed to maintain psychological pressure.
Mario Enrique Mayo, for example, was arrested on 28 September by State Security agents who interrogated him for six hours, and threatened him with jail, based on some information that he had supposedly published about one of them. On three different occasions this year, Pablo Pacheco, a member of the Independent Journalists Co-operative of Ciego de Ávila (Cooperativa Avileña de Periodistas Independientes - CAPI), was detained and questioned for several hours because he was suspected of "unlawful association."
These arrests are also a means to prevent journalists from carrying on their work. On 17 January 2002, Omar Rodríguez Saludes of the Nueva Prensa Cubana news agency was arrested in Havana while preparing to cover a meeting between some dissidents and a Spanish official.
Isabel Rey Rodríguez, a correspondent with the Cuba Press agency in Villa Clara (in central-west Cuba), was summoned by the police on 30 September. While she was being questioned, she was threatened with having to pay a fine of 600 pesos (23 euros) for "violating the confidentiality of an investigation." In one of her articles, she had relayed a charge of "corruption" against a retired military officer... through local officials of the Cuban Communist Party.
"Good advice" and pressure on relatives
Another alternative to arrest that seems to be used more and more often is the "home visit." Police go to the homes of independent journalists and, in a register ranging from informal questioning to "polite conversation," threaten them with criminal prosecution for their activities or give them "friendly" good advice that they should follow "in their own best interest." This type of contact is intended to create the suspicion that journalists thus targeted have been compromised and are co-operating with the police.
Raúl Rivero, founder and director of the Cuba Press news agency, regularly receives this type of visit, usually on a courteous note, during which police advise him, for example, not to expose this or that particular journalist working with his agency to "avoid problems" for him, given the current situation. In Ciego de Ávila, Pedro Argüelles Morán, of the CAPI agency, is regularly visited by two police officers who come to "discuss" events going on in the city and tell him that they are interested in knowing his opinion about them. They then warn him by alluding to the risks that he will be facing, while they assure him that their comments should not be construed in any way as "threats."
Fines are often imposed on independent journalists, who are also charged with offences likely to lead to harsh convictions.
Pedro Argüelles Morán (photo) was indicted over five years ago on "civil contempt" charges. Authorities accused him of having attempted to release information about human rights violations occurring in the prison where he was being held at the time because of his anti-government activities. His trial never took place but, like his colleague Jesús Joel Hernández Diaz, the journalist may be sentenced "any day" to a two-year prison term. Diaz was arrested on 18 January 1999 and sentenced, the very next day, to four years in prison for "social dangerousness." He was finally released, two years later, without explanation.
Independent journalists’ relatives and friends are also subjected to all sorts of harassment in either their private or professional lives, as shown by the case of the wife of Victor Rolando Arroyo, a correspondent with the Unión de Periodistas y Escritores Cubanos Independientes (UPECI) news agency in Pinar del Río (150 km south-west of Havana). Arroyo’s wife lost her job as a professor in the city and was reassigned to a teaching position in a remote village at a salary two-thirds smaller than her previous one. In 2001, Pablo Pacheco’s son was denied admittance to the pre-school due to "lack of space," even though his name was on their preferred list (because the journalist’s wife was a doctor).
Ban on forming organisations
Despite the crackdown, independent journalists are still trying to form groups-a daunting task. Since 1995, their agencies have been systematically relegated to an illegal status because the authorities refuse to recognise them despite the applications submitted to the Ministry of the Interior. Rather than turn them down, the officials simply elect not to respond to their applications. This course allows them to claim, in their letter to the United Nations, that the agencies for whom the imprisoned journalists work "do not exist" or "have not registered with the competent authorities."
The Cuban independent press, which consists of some 100 members grouped within about 20 small agencies, has been trying for 18 months to form a federation. Currently, there are three independent journalist organisations: the Federation of Cuban Journalists (Federación de Periodistas Cubanos - FEPEC), the Federation of Associated Journalists (Federación des Periodistas Asociados - FPA) and the Manuel Marques Sterling Association (Sociedad Manuel Márquez Sterling).
Judging by how harshly it has been repressed, the latter is no doubt the most aggressive. Among other activities, it is striving to denounce the crackdown on Cuban independent journalists. Although ignored by the official press, its communiqués are reprinted by the international news agencies with offices in Havana. The organisation’s purpose is to improve the professional status of independent journalists: first, because the majority of them have had no prior training in journalism and secondly, because this lack of training can be used by the government as a means to discredit their work.
But it is this very same government that is now cracking down on these attempts to develop training programmes. The most recent example occurred on 21 March 2002, when State Security agents intercepted three journalists while they were on their way to attend journalism courses in the home of Ricardo González (photo), the Association’s President, in Havana. Two other journalists already there were intercepted as they left his house. A sixth was questioned that evening by police about his activities within the Association. In October 2001, a similar police operation had already prevented such courses from being held. Ricardo González pointed out that, notwithstanding, there is no article in the Penal Code that prohibits anyone in Cuba from freely teaching a class.
Blackmail as the point of departure
Under the various methods of "harassment," it is also worth mentioning Cuba’s "visa policy." Having exhausted all of their patience with this incessant abuse, a total of 56 journalists have elected to go into exile since 1995. And nearly a dozen others are now preparing to seek asylum elsewhere.
But in order to leave the country, every Cuban citizen must first obtain the destination country’s visa and then an exit permit ("white card," or carta blanca) from the Immigration Department of the Ministry of the Interior, as well as a permit to re-enter Cuban territory in case the person concerned should wish to return at the end of his trip.
Cost is the first hurdle: the Cuban passport and these permits cost a total of several hundred dollars, excluding the expense of the host country visa. In addition, the granting of exit and re-entry permits is left to the authorities’ arbitrary discretion. The Cuban government uses this procedure to play "cat and mouse" with independent journalists who wish to definitively emigrate or to travel abroad.
Consequently, after having obtained an emigration visa from the United States, they are denied permission to leave Cuba. The parties concerned eventually obtain this permit but the long wait imposed upon them is tantamount to psychological harassment. Even when this is not the case, applicants usually automatically lose their jobs as soon as they are issued emigration visas. Their lodging can be requisitioned, and meanwhile they are living in Cuba subject to a "no-rights" status that prohibits them from carrying on virtually any legal activity.
Above all, applicants are destabilised in terms of their personal relations, having become a "persona non grata" within their own social circles. Even their friends are tempted to mistrust them, inevitably suspecting them of having given in to some form of blackmail by authorities in order to obtain the desired permit.
Several independent journalists now find themselves in this situation-including Milagros Beatón Betancourt, of Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental (APLO), José Luís García Paneque of the Libertad news agency, Jorge Dante Abad Herrera of APLO, and Jorge Oliveira Castillo and Dorka de Céspedes, who are, respectively, the director and reporter of the Havana Press agency. However, rumour has it that Manuel Vázquez Portal will be leaving Grupo de Trabajo Decoro in the very near future. After a two-year wait, he has just obtained his permit to leave Cuba. Normando Hernández González, director of the Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de Camagüey (CPIC) agency is said to be in the same situation. Edel José García Diaz, of the Centro Norte Press (CNP) agency, on the other hand, has supposedly been promised that he will get his permit in January 2003.
In yet another form of harassment, other reporters who merely want to travel are allowed to leave the country but are denied permission to return because their passports are stamped with the following notation: "permission granted for a final departure and for a definitive period." Leaving one’s country under conditions like these would thus be tantamount to sentencing oneself to remain in exile.
Raúl Rivero (photo) is used to this subtle invitation to a permanent departure, which has been offered to him each time that he has been invited to accept one of the many prizes that he has won abroad in recognition of his literary work or his contributions as an independent journalist. On 28 October, Cuban authorities once again refused to grant him a visa to travel to Mexico, where he had been invited by a literary review to present his latest collection of poems.
The "Red Line"
Despite all these underhanded methods of intimidation, Cuban independent journalists feel that their activities are currently being tolerated relatively well. They underscore the fact that, as of today, Act 88 (otherwise known as the "Gag Order"), which was enacted in March 1999 and provides up to 20 years of imprisonment for activities that would benefit the United States, has never been enforced.
While pledging their complete solidarity with their four jailed colleagues, they also point out that the last three to be arrested this year were jailed for their civic or political militancy, not directly because of their work as journalists.
They attribute this tolerance to four factors. The first stems from the fact that independent journalists are not actually in a position to violate the ban against editing publications or distributing audio-visual material on Cuban national territory. Deprived of any means to edit or transmit information on-site, they are, indeed, incapable of undermining the monopoly on information imposed by the government, which oversees all official media outlets and has total control over all of the news distributed inside the country. The independent journalists are convinced that crossing this internal information "red line" would expose them to the harshest retaliations-notably the penalties sanctioned under Act 88.
They also feel that the support provided by international press advocacy and freedom organisations, which systematically communicate to the world any infringement of their professional activities, protects them from retaliations: the government is reluctant to blackwash its "track record" because of foreign policy concerns.
Indeed, the communist regime finds itself in a sensitive diplomatic and economic situation. Cuban journalists in particular cite the attempts made by Fidel Castro to persuade the United States to strengthen its trade relations with Cuba after the former. granted Cuba permission to purchase some of its agri-food products. The Cuban President would avoid, for example, any attempt to weaken (by overly ostentatious reprisals), the position taken by Jimmy Carter, who recently advocated raising the American economic embargo. The journalists also recalled the American trade fair that was held in Havana last September or the International Conference on the Cuban Missile Crisis that met in Havana in October. Moreover, Fidel Castro announced in early December that his country planned to ask to be a party to the Cotonou Agreements. The latter entitle 77 countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (the ACP Group) to benefit from economic aid and a preferential trade conditions with the European Union.
Lastly, they mention the development of the telecommunication media, over which Cuban authorities no longer have total control. Despite its cost, the Cuban national and international telephone network is becoming increasingly accessible. It is difficult, but not impossible, for people to surf the Internet using clandestine connections. They anticipate that the half-open window available through the Internet portal and electronic mail will inevitably open wider as time goes on.
Within this narrow margin of relative tolerance, independent journalist activities are expanding in Cuba. Abroad, their increasingly professional and credible contributions have become an indispensable source of information on Cuban current events for the international media. On the island itself, independent journalists occupy an ever more solid solid niche within the profile of a civil society that is eluding the grip of the totalitarian regime. In this capacity, they are helping to build the essential foundation for Cuba’s peaceful transition into a democratic and liberal society.
Conclusion and recommendations
In the spring of 1999, one year after the Pope’s visit to Havana and the relative calm that ensued, the regime took a hard-line stance against the opposition and the independent press, causing 32 independent journalists to seek asylum in another country in 1999 and 2000. Two years later, the "hard-line approach" turned into a "low-intensity repression" and even independent journalists are of the opinion that they are benefiting from a margin of tolerance toward their activities.
However, the latter is still very relative. First, because three of these journalists were arrested this year. Even if they were placed behind bars primarily for political acts of militancy or for being human rights activists, the three men were also known by the authorities for their journalistic activities, which had already led to their being taken in for questioning or summoned by the police. Nevertheless, since their incarceration they have never stopped exercising their right to inform the public. And thirdly, because the independent press is still being subjected to daily harassment as a reminder to Cuban journalists that they can be arrested and given a harsh prison sentence at any time.
Finally, what is most evident is that the regime is maintaining its monopoly over information distributed to the Cuban population-a veritable sanctuary. In reality, there is zero tolerance. The crackdown policy has achieved its objective of keeping independent journalists beyond the "red line" delineating the distribution to the Cuban public of information not controlled by the government. In an interview granted in 1997, Raúl Rivero claimed that he would abandon all of his independent press-related activities for five minutes of uncensored air time over Cuban state-owned television channels. That is precisely what the authorities will not tolerate.
In this context, the official press distributes only propaganda-based articles or news reports that have been chosen, reviewed and corrected to serve the regime’s ideological interests. The Department of Revolutionary Guidance, which answers directly to the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee, is the main architect of this censorship. In fact, the code of "ethics" followed by official journalists clearly stipulates that "through their work [journalists] must help to promote the constant improvement of our comunist society."
In fact, the official press released virtually no news about the Varela Project. This initiative, which was undertaken by the opposition to give Cubans a more democratic way to express their opinion on an upcoming revision of their Constitution, instead induced the government to organise a wide-ranging referendum that legitimised the "irrevocable" nature of the country’s Constitution. The Project would have provided for official recognition of freedom of expression.
Reporters Without Borders requests:
Government leaders in Havana:
to recognise freedom of the press and freedom of speech without restriction and to instruct the Ministry of Justice to legalise news agencies;
to release the four incarcerated journalists, drop any proceedings against them and put an end to any future interrogations concerning them;
to repeal those Articles of Act 88 that oppose basic freedoms. The organisation reminds the authorities that, in a document dated 18 January 2000, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, asserted that "imprisonment to condemn the peaceful expression of opinion constitutes a serious violation of human rights";
to end any harassment and attempts to intimidate independent journalists;
to submit the Varela Project to a referendum;
to sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which, in its Article 19, guarantees freedom of the press.
Member States of the European Union:
to make Cuba’s adherence to the Cotonou Agreements dependent upon the abolishment of the Cuban government’s monopoly on information, the legalisation of news agencies, the release of the four journalists still in prison and the signing and ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Reporters Without Borders points out that that the massive human rights violations in Cuba would immediately expose the country to penalties by virtue of Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreements;
to provide effective concrete support to independent news agencies.
Government leaders in Washington, DC:
to raise the embargo that has been imposed on Cuba for more than 40 years. This measure is counter-productive in respect of the protection of human rights, because Cuban leaders use it as a pretext to squelch all opposition and to abuse basic freedoms. By arousing sympathy within the international community, its unilateral character lends legitimacy to a regime in which human rights violations constitute a deliberate policy.
Reporters Without Borders also urges members of the press in democratic countries:
to assist independent journalists, primarily by publishing their columns and articles. Over and above any financial aid, such support would represent a recognition of their work and allow them to break through the isolation of their present confinement.