Posted on Mon, Apr. 25, 2005
CUBAN INDEPENDENT JOURNALIST
Jorge Olivera Castillo, one of 29 Cuban journalists arrested in a massive Cuban government crackdown on dissidents and the independent media in March 2003, spent nearly two years in prison. He was convicted in a one-day, closed-door proceeding under a law prohibiting acts ‘‘aimed at subverting the internal order of the nation and destroying its political, economic and social system.’’ He was freed Dec. 6, one of a half-dozen imprisoned journalists released on medical parole in 2004. After his release, the 43-year-old editor granted an interview to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
The interview was conducted by Sauro González Rodríguez, a research associate for CPJ’s Americas program. Excerpts follow:
CPJ: Tell us about your experiences in prison.
JOC: I spent 36 days in a cell with common criminals in Villa Marista. The four of us could not stand at the same time, that’s how small the cell was. There was no ventilation and we had a fluorescent lamp on 24 hours a day. The bathroom was a hole; the smell was unbearable.
Then the trial came. The trial was a sham, a grotesque sham. I only saw my lawyer 10 to 15 minutes before my court hearing was to start. I felt I had been convicted in advance. Thank God I had the strength of character and could face such a difficult situation. I did not keep silent. I defended myself against all the allegations prosecutors made, full of visceral hatred—I can’t forget that. I refuted all of them.
Then there was the distance. I was sent more than 900 kilometers (560 miles) from my place of residence, which was an additional punishment for my wife and children. I was first at the Combinado Provincial de Guantánamo, and we were placed with common prisoners for 17 days.
Then we were placed in solitary confinement. We had an hour a day to get some sun. I began having pain in my bones, due to the cell’s humidity and the lack of sunlight. I was sick all of one year. The food arrived rotten sometimes, and the water was muddy. I contracted parasites twice. I would tell the doctor: ‘‘Look, the food is poorly prepared and sometimes rotten. The water is contaminated; we should not drink it.’’ And she would say: “That’s not my problem. My problem is if you get sick.’‘
And there were lots of insects: mosquitoes, scorpions, flies, ants, lizards. It was a terrible situation. All amid the indifference, the indolence by the medical services and the prison officers. I was later placed in a cell with common prisoners, pedophiles and murderers. Something terribly harsh and brutal goes on in Cuban prisons.
Hunger, alienation, the guards’ willingness to beat up prisoners who in many cases do not deserve it—the prisoners become so alienated that they turn to self-mutilation. I saw two people make a hot paste by melting plastic shopping bags and then put their hands inside this substance. They lost their hands, which were amputated, and were released on medical parole. Other people stab themselves; swallow wires, small spoons; take fluids that are harmful to their digestive system. To sum it up, it’s a world of horror.
After being jailed for a year, I was transferred to the Guantánamo Provincial Hospital. This happened a year after I had been requesting adequate medical attention. During the time I spent at the hospital, conditions improved. I would receive the hospital food, and there was a snack. I was like any other patient, except that I remained jailed at a ward for prisoners, living with common prisoners, which was not easy. But at least there was more ventilation.
CPJ: Were you aware of the international protests over the imprisonments?
JOC: You don’t know how important it is for a political prisoner, for a prisoner of conscience to feel and see through your family and through phone calls what people were doing. We were desperate. I would ask my relatives what CPJ was doing, what Reporters without Borders was doing, what the Inter American Press Association was doing, what Amnesty International was doing, what many other people, including politicians and people of goodwill were doing.
That was very important from a spiritual point of view, to strengthen ourselves in those conditions and to endure them. And this should not let up; it’s crucial for those journalists who are still in jail under conditions similar to those that I have described. Their minds may be affected, and so their bodies may be.
CPJ: What is your view on the government crackdown and everything that has happened since?
JOC: I don’t think that the crackdown was very successful. The international reaction has been very strong, massive and sustained. I think the government underestimated that, and it has caused the government to lose a very large amount of prestige. The independent press has moved forward, and so have the trade unions, political parties and human-rights activists. So, I believe that in political terms the government hasn’t won anything.
However, the language of confrontation persists, and this is very dangerous. We can’t rule out that the government won’t take drastic measures, although smaller in scale. They could imprison three, four persons every few months, and it wouldn’t draw international attention.
CPJ: What are your plans for the future?
JOC: I think one day I’ll be able to leave Cuba. I don’t know how I’m going to do in the United States; I don’t know whether I will settle there permanently. I would like to keep writing, working as a television editor. But I know it won’t be easy. First I want to protect my family, my children and, above all, I want to cope better with my illness.
One thing I do know for sure: I’ll never renounce my principles. I will always support a plural, inclusive society wherever I am. Nobody should be discriminated against because of his or her ideology. And all ideological lines should have their own media, their own way of expressing ideas and sharing them with other people. I will always defend these ideas. I took them up one day, haven’t renounced them and never will—let alone now.