By Mark Fitzgerald | Editor & Publisher magazine
Castro’s Crackdown May Have Backfired
CHICAGO—Nostalgia for the Cuba of hot music borne on tropical trade winds was much in the news recently with the deaths of Compay Segundo, who became an international star at age 89 thanks to the hit film Buena Vista Social Club and its soundtrack album, and salsa legend Celia Cruz. But the island’s increasingly agitated dictator, Fidel Castro, has been unable to bask in those warm feelings because a tenacious campaign by press freedom groups based in the U.S., Europe and Latin America keeps reminding the world of his mass imprisonment of independent journalists.
In raids March 18, Cuban secret police arrested 28 journalists who practiced their craft in defiance of the draconian “Law 88” and other anti-press statutes. Castro may have calculated that world public opinion would be too distracted by the impending Iraq war to care. Instead, furious protests only increased after the journalists were tried in secret and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 14 to 27 years.
More recently, the Miami-based Inter American Press Association (IAPA)
convened a meeting of Latin-American diplomats to urge them to increase pressure for the journalists’ release. Havana-bound tourists in Paris received postcards titled, “Cuba: The World’s Biggest Prison for Journalists” from Reporters Without Borders. The protest is working. The traditionally friendly European Union, for instance, imposed sanctions that so angered Castro he turned a celebration of the Cuban revolution’s 50th anniversary into a rally against Europe.
Castro may have felt the deepest cut, however, from a recent action taken by the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “Castro doesn’t care what the U.S. says, he doesn’t care what the EU says, but he does care what Latin American journalists think. And what we have done is send a Latin American journalist with a good reputation whose reporting is indisputable,” said Carlos Lauria, CPJ’s program coordinator for the Americas.
That journalist, Gustavo Gorriti of Peru, is known throughout Latin America for his independence. In the early 1990s when former President Alberto Fujimori imposed his “self-coup” in Peru, Gorriti was one of the first people imprisoned. In exile in Panama, his reporting for the daily La Prensa so unnerved the president there that Gorriti was ordered deported.
Gorriti has quietly visited the families of several of the imprisoned Cuban journalists, including the wife of Raul Rivero, an IAPA board member who was sentenced to 20 years. The prisoners are held in dank prisons far from their homes, fed poorly and are allowed visitors only once every three months. Gorriti found jailers are neglecting prisoners whose health has deteriorated, gravely so in the case of Oscar Espinosa Chepe.
Cuba’s independent journalists are not much better off outside prison, Gorriti wrote: “While Castro boasts that no forced disappearances, no physical torture are inflicted on repressed opponents, the intense, widespread harassment, pressure, and jail conditions exerted on those opponents undoubtedly amount to psychological torture.”