About a hundred independent journalists tried to exercise the right to inform the public despite a government ban. They were grouped in about 20 agencies that are not recognised by the authorities. Their work consisted essentially of producing reports and articles that were faxed or telephoned to the United States where they were posted on websites such as cubanet.org and nuevaprensa.org, or were used by Radio Martí, a radio station set up by the US government to beam programming to the island, where it is jammed by the authorities.
In the spring of 1999, a year after the pope’s visit to Havana and the relative lull that ensued, the regime cracked down on the opposition and independent press. Three years later, some independent journalists thought they enjoyed a degree of tolerance for their activities. But there were limits. Firstly, three more independent journalists were arrested in 2002. Even if they were jailed above all for their political activism or their defence of human rights, they were also known to the authorities for their press activities, which had led to their being detained on summoned by the police in the past. Secondly, there was little tolerance in the provinces, where the authorities continued to repress with a heavy hand.
Journalists were often threatened with imprisonment under Law 88. Passed in February 1999, this law established punishments of up to 20 years in prison for "providing information" that could be useful to US policy. The authorities also sought to cut the independent journalists off from the rest of society. They were closely watched by the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR), the official neighbourhood watchdog organisations. Pressure was put on close relatives or partners. "I decided not to have any sentimental attachments so as not to expose anyone or give the authorities any leverage over me," one journalist said. When some journalists finally resigned themselves to exile, the authorities tried to pressure or blackmail them before giving them the exit visa that allowed them to leave the country.
The limits of this tolerance were in practice clearly defined and, despite appearances, repression served its purpose of allowing the regime to maintain its enshrined monopoly of the supply of news to the Cuban people. "The news media are public. They do not and cannot belong to private individuals," Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro said during his 1 May speech. News coming from abroad was also controlled. Home-made satellite dishes designed to receive foreign TV stations were routinely confiscated in police operations. The international press was only available to tourists and diplomats. The dispatches and articles written by foreign correspondents based in Havana were read after they appeared, and their authors were warned when they did not please the government.
The range of news media available to Cubans was limited exclusively to the official press, which supplied only propaganda and articles and reports chosen, revised and corrected according to the regime’s ideological interests. This censorship was overseen by the Department of Revolutionary Guidance (DOR), which is directly controlled by the Communist Party’s central committee. The broadcasting of former US President Jimmy Carter’s speech in May, in which he called on the Cuban government to legalise the domestic opposition and recognise freedom of expression and association, was unprecedented in Cuba. It was carried live by official radio and television stations on 14 May, and was transcribed in full in the print media on 16 May.
In this speech, the future Nobel peace laureate also mentioned the existence of the Varela project, an opposition proposal for a referendum to make the constitution more democratic. This was one of the very few occasions on which the official press has mentioned the project. In order to block it, the government organised a vast referendum proclaiming the constitution’s socialist nature to be "irrevocable." The Varela project specifically referred to recognising freedom of expression.
Like Oswaldo Payá, the Varela project’s creator who received the European Parliament’s Sakharov prize in December for his defence of human rights and freedoms, Cuba’s independent journalists have won international recognition, and their reports have become a source of information about Cuba for the international news media.
The launch on 19 December of the bimonthly De Cuba by the Manuel Márquez Sterling Journalists Association (an illegal group) posed a challenge to the state’s monopoly of news. Its distribution was so far clandestine, and the reception it receives from the authorities will determine whether an era of tolerance really has begun for the independent press.
Because of the serious situation in Cuba, President Castro is on the Reporters Without Borders worldwide list of predators of press freedom
Five journalists imprisoned
Journalist Carlos Alberto Domínguez was arrested at his home in the Havana suburb of Arroyo Naranjo by four state security agents on 23 February 2002, on the eve of a commemorative mass organised by the opposition. As well as belonging to the independent news agency Cuba Verdad, Domínguez heads the Instituto de Derecho and is a member of the Partido Democrático 30 de Noviembre, two small, illegal groups. After a period in detention, he was taken to a Havana hospital with hypertension, before being jailed on 29 March in Valle Grande prison, 60 km. from the capital, which has a regime of "maximum harshness." He was not charged with anything specific. Domínguez denounced his conditions of detention several times, as well as the use by the prison authorities of ordinary inmates to supervise political detainees. Sources close to his family reported on 2 December that he had been transferred to the detainees’ section of Salvador Allende hospital in Havana. He had been suffering violent headaches for some time.
Lester Téllez Castro, head of the Agencia de Prensa Libre Avileña (APLA) and Carlos Brizuela Yera, a contributor to the news agency Colegio de Períodistas Independientes de Camagüey (CIPC), were beaten and detained along with eight human rights activists in the central city of Ciego de Ávila on 4 March during a protest about police violence against fellow independent journalist Jesús Álvarez Castillo of Cuba Press. On 27 August, the Ciego de Ávila prosecutor requested six years in prison for Téllez and five years for Brizuela for "insulting an official", "public disorder", "resisting arrest" and "disobeying authorities". Téllez was placed in Canaleta prison in Ciego de Ávila province, where his family was able to visit him regularly. He began refusing all prison food in May because he said it was contaminated, relying instead on family food parcels. He staged several hungers strikes to demand better conditions, which he denounced in letters. His partner Daymarelis Pérez lost her job as programme director of Radio Surco, a local state-run radio station. After complaining of cloudy vision in his left eye (his only good eye, as he lost the use of his right eye as a child), he was transferred to a hospital in Havana on 12 December.
Brizuela was placed in the provisional detention centre of eastern Holguín province. After smuggling out letters in early April denouncing conditions, he and his wife Ana Peláez García, a fellow detainee, became the target of the guards’ hostility. "One by one, we have to undress completely before each visit and submit to a thorough body search. They even undo the hems of our clothes in search of messages. The re-educator no longer talks to me," Peláez reported. Despite repeated requests, Brizuela was unable to receive a visit from his lawyer. Conditions apparently improved slightly in October. In a letter to the United Nations, the Cuban authorities stressed that Téllez and Brizuela had criminal records, in an apparent attempt to discredit them and justify their imprisonment.
Ángel Pablo Polanco of the independent news agency Noticuba was released after five days of detention on 3 August. He was placed under the control of the courts and had to report to the police twice a month. He continued to face prosecution for "incitement to commit a crime", "insulting an agent of the state" and "insulting the symbols of the nation", with a possible sentence of four years in prison. The reason for the charges were not explained to him and no date was set for a trial.
One journalist arrested before 2002 was still in prison at the end of the year.
Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, head of the Línea Sur Press news agency, was arrested on 18 November 1997 and 10 days later was sentenced, on appeal, to six years in prison for calling President Castro and Vice-President Carlos Lage "liars" in an interview for Radio Martí, a US government radio station set up to beam news to Cuba. He said they had not respected the democratic undertakings signed by all the Latin American leaders at a previous summit. After being moved from one work camp to another, he was transferred on 16 July 2002 to the central prison of Ariza. His relations with fellow inmates were tense, with some harassing him in return for small favours from the prison authorities. The very poor conditions of detention took a toll on his health and in December he was diagnosed with leptospirosis, an infectious bacterial disease occurring in rodents that can be caught by humans. From his letters, his friends feared that his mental health had also deteriorated. "He has changed a lot, and his friends will be hard put to recognize him when he comes out," one said. He could have been released on parole since completing half of his sentence in October 2000, but prison authorities blocked this on the grounds that he did not cooperate with his "re-education programme".
23 journalists arrested
Havana Press editor Jorge Olivera Castillo and his wife were detained by police on 13 January 2002, shortly after meeting with an official of the US Interests Section, which substitutes for an embassy in the absence of diplomatic relations.
Omar Rodríguez Saludes, editor of the Nueva Prensa agency, was detained on 17 January as he left the Spanish embassy where he had just covered a meeting between dissidents and a Spanish official. A state security agent interrogated him about his activities, calling his work "counter-revolutionary." He was released six hours later.
Maria Elena Alpizar, a reporter for the Noticuba agency in the central province of Villa Clara, was detained on 24 February as she was about to cover a demonstration called by an organisation that is not official recognised. She was made to get in car, driven 10 km. from her home, and then abandoned.
Lester Téllez Castro, editor of the APLA news agency, was arrested at his home in the central city of Ciego de Ávila on 28 February in the company of Carlos Brizuela Yera, a contributor to the CIPC agency. Téllez’s mother said police hit them both in the face, and seized papers and equipment. Brizuela was released on 2March. Téllez was set free the following evening.
Mirley Delgado Bombino of the APLA news agency was detained on the streets of Ciego de Ávila on 3 March by two policemen who took her to a state security office and threatened to have her dismissed from her job as a nurse in a local health centre if she did not put an end to her journalistic activity. She was set free after two hours of questioning.
María del Carmen Carro, a contributor to the website cubafreepress.org, was detained on 18 March by two state security agents as she was accompanying her sister to hospital. They took her to a police station where she was interrogated for several hours and threatened with reprisals for her dissident activity. She faced charges of "incitement to commit a crime."
Miguel Galván Gutiérrez of the Havana Press agency was detained on 28 April. Policemen made him get into a van and dumped him 38 km. from Güines, the small town in Havana province where he lives. The day before, a state security agency had warned him that "something" could happen to him if he left Güines.
Juan Carlos Garcell, a correspondent in Holguín for the Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental (APLO), a news agency based in the southeastern city of Santiago, was detained in a hospital in Holguín on 3 May as he was interviewing the mother of a pregnant woman who was about to die. He was set free an hour later after being hit. He was arrested again in the evening, his home was searched and several documents were taken. He was hit again at the police station and was threatened before being released the next afternoon. He was arrested three more times in 2002: on 11 July, 5 August and 9 December.
Carlos Serpa Maceira of the Unión de Períodistas y Escritores Cubanos Independientes (UPECI) was detained on 12 July by state security in a locality on the southwestern Isle of Youth while covering a demonstration organised by government opponents. He was interrogated for more than eight hours and was threatened with imprisonment. He was detained again for three hours on 19 June by state security agents in Nueva Gerona, the main town on the Isle of Youth.
Yoel Blanco García of the Colegio de Períodistas Independientes de Camagüey (CPIC) agency was arrested at his home on 21 July by state security agents who gave no explanation for his arrest. He was interrogated for nearly three hours and threatened with reprisals if he continued to visit dissidents. He had already been detained and threatened with imprisonment for "enemy propaganda" on 10 July as he was about to cover a meeting organised by dissidents.
Ernesto Roque Sintero of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro agency was detained by three police officers on 24 July on the grounds that he was living illegally at his wife’s home in Havana. He was kept in detention all day and threatened with imprisonment. In Cuba, each person is supposed to live at the address assigned by the authorities.
Adela Soto Álvarez, the Nueva Prensa agency’s correspondent in the western province of Pinar del Río, was detained by state security agents on 10 August as she was getting ready to cover a meeting of dissidents. The police made her get in a car and dumped her 24 km. away. This was the third time in two months that she was questioned.
Independent journalist Jesús García Leyva was detained by state security in Havana on 16 August as he was about to cover a demonstration organised by opponents of the regime. He was threatened with prosecution and, before being released, was made to pay a fine of 30 pesos (1.50 euros).
Marío Enrique Mayo, editor of the Félix Varela agency based in the central city of Camagüey, was arrested at his home on 28 September by state security agency and was interrogated about his sources for a report he had published on a former member of the armed forces. He was threatened with imprisonment for "illegally practising journalism" and was release six hours later.
Pablo Pacheco of the Cooperativa Avileña de Períodistas Independientes (CAPI) was detained and interrogated on 10 November. He was insulted and threatened for trying to film two inebriated women being detained by police. He was set free after several hours and his camera was returned to him, but the recording of the incident was erased.
Ana Leonor Díaz Chamizo of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro agency was summoned by state security on 7 December and, for 10 hours, was threatened with reprisals for contributing to Radio Martí. A month earlier she had been summoned by police and threatened with imprisonment under Law 88.
Three journalists physically attacked
Andrew Cawthorne, the Reuters correspondent in Havana, and Alfredo Tedeschi, a Reuters cameraman, were hit by police on 27 February 2002 as they were covering an incident in which some 20 Cubans in a stolen bus forced their way into the Mexican embassy. They were the only foreign journalists based in Havana to have filmed the incident, and their camera was stolen. Reuters managed to shoot other footage after the incident, but the authorities block transmission by satellite for nearly six hours. Other foreign journalists who went to cover the incident were violently pushed away by police. When inaugurating a new Mexican consulate in Miami on 27 February, Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda had said "the doors of the embassy and those of Mexico are open to all Cuban and Latin-American citizens."
Stones were thrown at the home of Carlos Serpa Maceira of the independent agency UPECI on 8 May. Two weeks later, municipal employees threatened him as he was taking photographs on the southwestern Isle of Youth of homes that had been without water for several years.
Mirley Delgado Bombino of the APLA news agency often received threatening messages after her brother-in-law, journalist Lester Téllez Castro, was arrested on 4 March 2002. Delgado, who is also a nurse in a Ciego de Ávila health centre, on one occasion received a doll with a bullet drawn on the forehead and a message saying: "Soon you will be like that." Delgado was also threatened with imprisonment.
Two individuals shouted "all those who are not communists will be hanged," in the middle of the night of 17 November outside the Havana building where Amarilis Cortina Rey of the Cuba-Verdad agency lives.
Pressure and obstruction
Fabio Prieto Llorente, correspondent for the Havana Press agency and the cubafreepress.org website on the southwestern Isle of Youth, was detained at his home by two state security agents for six hours on 15 January 2002, a week after covering a dissident demonstration in the town of Nueva Gerona on the island. Police tried to detain him again on 12 June as he was covering a banned demonstration.
Jesús Álvarez Castillo, Cuba Press correspondent in the central city of Ciego de Ávila, lost consciousness after a policeman gave him rabbit punch to the neck during an attempt to detain him on 4 March as he was about to cover the meeting of an illegal human rights group. The group’s members were then arrested as they staged a protest outside the hospital where Álvarez was taken for treatment. Álvarez believed the incident was engineered so as to be able to arrest the group for insulting and defying authorities. He was told on 31 July that he was being prosecuted for refusing to appear as a witness in their trial. He faced up to eight years in prison or a fine of 3,000pesos (about 150euros).
Normando Hernández González, the head of the CPIC agency, succeeded in escaping when state security agents came to his home with the apparent intention of arresting him on the morning of 5 March, a day after he gave Radio Martí a report about the use of violence by police against journalist Jesús Álvarez Castillo and the resulting arrests of journalists Lester Téllez Castro and Carlos Brizuela.
Raúl Rivero, head of the Cuba Press agency, and Omar Rodríguez Saludes of the Nueva Prensa agency were filmed by a presumed state security agent on 8 March as they left a banned meeting between a Russian journalist and members of the Manuel Márquez Sterling Journalists Association to discuss professional training.
Dorka de Céspedes of the Havana Press agency was summoned by state security agents in Havana on 15 March and was interrogated about an interview she had given for Radio Martí about the implication of military officers in corruption scandals.
State security agents stopped three independent journalists on 21 March as they were on their way to attend a journalism class at the home of Ricardo González, the president of the Manuel Márquez Sterling Journalists Association. Two others were stopped as they left his home when the class was over. A sixth was interrogated that evening by police about his activities in the association. González pointed out that no article in the Cuban criminal code bans individuals from giving classes.
Jesús Joel Díaz Hernández, the former head of the CAPI agency, went into exile in the United States on 21 March. Sentenced to four years in prison in 1999 for "social dangerousness," he had been released after two years and immediately resumed his journalist activities. Thereafter he had been harassed constantly. Three other independent journalists left Cuba in 2002: Lázaro Echemendía of Cuba Press, Yoel Blanco García of the CPIC and Osvaldo de Céspedes of the Cooperativa de Períodistas Independientes (CPI).
A state security agent went to the Havana home of Tania Quintero of Cuba Press on 27 March to "discuss" the independent press in general, the classes given by the Manuel Márquez Sterling Journalists Association and national and international politics. Ricardo González, the association’s president, said state security used this technique to get to know the personality of the dissidents and try to win their confidence.
The authorities carried out raids in the locality of Bauta, west of the capital, in early April as part of a campaign against "ideological deviation," confiscating satellite dishes used to receive foreign TV channels and fining offenders for "indiscipline." The crackdown was subsequently extended to neighbouring localities.
José Manuel Caraballo Bravo of the APLA agency was sentenced on 13 April to three years of work for the benefit of society, without imprisonment, for "forging documents." Caraballo appealed. Without taking a position on the allegation’s validity, fellow journalists pointed out that it was more than three years old and said it had been revived in order to punish Caraballo’s dissident activities. He also belongs to the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights.
The local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (the official neighbourhood watchdog group) prepared to hold an "acto de repudio" (a hostile demonstration with chanting of insults) outside the home of Cuba Press correspondent Marvín Hernández Monzón in Palmira, in Cienfuegos province, on 12 June. Heavy rain prevented the demonstration from taking place.
On 17 June, a state security agent ordered Jesús Álvarez Castillo of Cuba Press to leave Miraflores Nuevo, a locality in Ciego de Ávila province where a number of former political prisoners live with their families. Álvarez had gone there to see how the collection of signatures was going for the government-launched petition to have the constitution’s socialist nature declared "irrevocable."
It was reported on 2 July that authorities in the town of Florida in the central province of Camagüey had been harassing Yoel Blanco García of the CPIC agency for several days. Blanco said state security agents were watching and following him constantly. At the same time, the word was being put about locally that Blanco intended to sabotage the collection of signatures for the petition on the constitution’s socialist nature.
It was reported on 12 July that Richard Roselló, a contributor to the website cubafreepress.org, was being harassed in an effort to make him stop residing in Havana. He said judicial officials first ordered his expulsion from his mother’s home, where he had lived for 10 years. Then neighbours at his new home were demanding that he leave the area altogether. He had been fined 1,200 pesos (60 euros) for living illegally in Havana, he said.
Jorge Olivera Castillo, editor of the Havana Press agency, was sentenced on 4 September to a fine of 1,500 pesos (75 euros) for spending a night at his wife’s home. As he refused to pay, because he denied the charge, he was threatened with imprisonment. His appeal was rejected a week later. In Cuba, everyone is required to reside at the address assigned by the authorities.
Isabel Rey Rodríguez, Cuba Press correspondent in the central province of Villa Clara, was summoned by police on 30 September and threatened with a fine of 600 pesos (30 euros) for "violating the secrecy of a judicial investigation" because she reported that a retired military officer was charged with corruption. The fine was finally imposed on 7 October. Previously, on 12 July, Rey was expelled from Santa Clara, the provincial capital, when she went to cover a meeting of dissidents. She was also forbidden to leave her own home on 24 February when she had wanted to cover a dissident activity.
Marío Enrique Mayo of the Félix Varela agency, based in the central city of Camagüey, was given an official warning by the police on 2 October for "insulting" the authorities. A neighbour had reported him to the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution after she overheard criticism of the government being expressed in a loud voice inside his home.
Catherine David of the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur was stopped at Havana international airport on 8 October as she was going through customs with a friend. Officials searched their bags thoroughly, confiscating her files, rolls of film, audio tapes containing interviews with dissidents, and several books and reports on the human rights situation in Cuba. They also copied all the files on her computer and the entire contents of her address book. In response to her request for the return of her material, she received a message from a customs official on 10 December justifying its seizure on the grounds that it was "contrary to the general interests of the nation."
A policeman turned up at the home of Álida de Jesús Viso Bello of Cuba Press on the night of 21 October and offered to "help" her. She declined the offer and refused to let him in, interpreting the approach as an attempt either to unnerve her or to compromise her for the purposes of blackmail.
It was reported on 28 October that Cuba Press editor Raúl Rivero, who is also a writer and poet, was refused an exit visa for a trip to Mexico to present his latest collection of poems at the invitation of a literary magazine. It was the third time since the start of the year that the authorities denied him an exit visa. Rivero said the only permission the government was prepared to give him was for a definitive departure with no return. Another Cuba Press journalist, Ernestina Rosell, was also barred from travelling to Switzerland for personal reasons.
Two state security agents went to the home of Luis Cino Álvarez of the Nueva Prensa agency on 29 October to warn him of the risks he would run if he continued to supply news to Radio Martí.
On 6 November, Ana Leonor Díaz Chamizo of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro agency was summoned to a meeting with two state security agents who accused her of breaking Law 88 by passing news to Radio Martí, and threatened her with imprisonment. They said her son could also have problems if she persisted with her counter-revolutionary activities.
Fara Armenteros of the UPECI agency, Víctor Manuel Domínguez of Lux Info Press and Ana Leonor Pérez, a contributor to the cubafreepress.org website, were summoned by state security on 14 November and threatened with imprisonment for violating Law 88 by working with foreign news media. Armenteros was again summoned by state security on 4 December. She said they accused her above all of having the fax machine used to send many reports by independent journalists to the offices in Miami of the cubanet.org website.
State security agents intercepted María Elena Alpizar of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro agency on 30 November as she was about to cover a dissident demonstration. As one of them was forcing her into a police car, she injured her head. The police took her to hospital and then followed her for the rest of the day to dissuade her from returning to the demonstration.
State security agents threatened José Ubaldo Izquierdo Hernández of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro agency with imprisonment while he was covering a religious procession in Güines (Havana province) on 4 December. Previously, as he was going there, a number of policemen had tried to provoke him. As he was returning home afterwards, he was knocked off his bicycle by a car which, according to him, belonged to state security. He sustained only minor injuries. In July, a state security agent warned him: "We are watching you closely, and you won’t be able to do your work."
State security agents threatened Carlos Serpa Maceira of the UPECI agency with imprisonment on 10 December when he went to the office of the (illegal) Cuban Foundation for Human Rights in Nueva Gerona (Isle of Youth) for a ceremony marking the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was accused of causing a "breach of the peace" and "criminal association." In June, members of the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution had threatened to target his daughter if he did not support the proposal to make the constitution’s socialist nature "irrevocable."