It was a grim year for press freedom in Cuba. A total of 27 journalists were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms in the course of a crackdown on dissent. Thereafter, they were held in conditions which their families described as inhumane. Fellow journalists who remained at large ran the risk of suffering the same fate.
In Cuba, 2003 will go down in history as a black year for press freedom and civil liberties in general. President Fidel Castro launched an unprecedented wave of arrests on 18 March, on the eve of the US attack on Iraq, jailing a total of 75 dissidents. They included human rights activists, trade unionists and peaceful political campaigners, as well as 27 independent journalists.
The journalists were given sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years in prison in summary trials that denied them the right of defence. They were convicted under Law 88 or article 91 of the criminal code. Law 88 protects Cuba’s “independence and economy.” It punishes “subversive activities” that further US “imperialist interests.” This includes working for foreign news media. Article 91 punishes “actions against Cuba’s independence and territorial integrity.”
For the most part, the journalists were accused of collaborating with the United States by writing articles that gave a different view of Cuba from that served up in the official press. Their reports were usually about the (not officially recognised) opposition, human rights violations or Cuban daily life. They were also accused of visiting the US interests section (the substitute for an embassy), which President Castro has branded as the “headquarters of domestic counter-revolution” although he has never closed it down.
The prosecution witnesses included known independent journalists Nestor Baguer and Manuel David Orrio who turned out to agents of the Directorate for State Security (the political police) who had been infiltrated into the independent press. “Subversive material” confiscated during extensive searches of the journalists homes - typewriters, computers, paper, pens and tape-recorders - was produced in evidence.
Shortly after being convicted at the start of April, the journalists and all the other detained dissidents were sent to prisons often hundreds of kilometres from their homes. Forced to undertake long and expensive journeys in order to visit them, their families complained of “a second sentence.” The prisoners received the harshest treatment provided by Cuba’s prisons and were allowed only one family visit every three months (instead of every three weeks).
Several staged hunger strikes in protest against the conditions : the lack of hygiene (cells infested by rats and cockroaches), the lack of medical care, the revolting food, the lack of access to water and the interception of their mail. Some, such as Oscar Espinosa Chepe, were seriously ill. Their treatment was “in accordance with the Revolution’s humanistic ethics,” said Cuba’s ambassador to Paris. In a show of protest, the wives of some 30 dissidents silently marched each Sunday outside Saint Rita’s church in Havana, dressed in black or white. They were often threatened because of this.
The March 2003 crackdown was surprising for both its scale and timing. Cuba seemed to be on the point of benefiting from the Cotonou Accords, under which 77 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, the so-called ACP Group, receive economic aid and preferential trade relations with the European Union. The crackdown came at a moment when a small but growing sector of the population was refusing to carry on living in fear. They were just a handful 10 years ago. Now there are now several hundred active dissidents throughout the country.
The promoters of the Varela Project, an (illegal) opposition petition calling for a referendum on a constitutional amendment, gathered 11,000 signatures in 2002 and 14,000 in 2003. Independent journalists, for their part, had launched a magazine called De Cuba in December 2002. It was the first challenge to the state’s monopoly of news and information since the 1960s. Its editor, Ricardo González Alfonso, who was also Reporters Without Borders’ correspondent, is one of the imprisoned journalists.
The scale of this crackdown and the execution of three men who hijacked a ferry in an attempt to reach the Florida coast elicited a strong reaction from the international community and badly dented the 1959 revolution’s romantic image, which the government had carefully nurtured.
Traditional supporters of the Castro regime such as Portuguese writer Jose Saramago distanced themselves. The European Union revised its policy of cooperation and adopted sanctions. These included a decision to invite Cuban dissidents to ceremonies held to mark national festivities. This enraged the Cuban government, which thereafter tried to split the EU countries. Two new Latin American presidents - Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Nestor Kirchner of Argentina - nonetheless chose this moment to improve relations with Havana, turning a blind eye to the human rights violations.
President Bush, a hardliner, said he was in favour of toughening the US embargo, which has for a long time been the Castro regime’s justification for cracking down on dissent and imposing a totalitarian straitjacket on Cuban society. In practice, however, the embargo has lost a lot of its force in recent years. According to official Cuban figures, the United States has become the country’s biggest food supplier, with Cuba making 590 million dollars in purchases from its “enemy” since 2001.
Reporters Without Borders staged several protests to highlight repression and censorship in Cuba, but the response of the authorities was a refusal to dialogue. Reporters Without Borders activists who chained themselves to the Cuban embassy railings in Paris on 24 April 2003 were badly beaten with iron bars by embassy employees - on French territory.
The international reaction had no affect on the government’s line, which continued to be to brandish the threat of a US invasion in order to justify repression. Although the wave of arrests targeted many leading dissidents, the dissident movement survived and other independent journalists remained at large and continued their activities. And they continued to be subjected to harassment. Searches, police “visits” at home, summonses for questioning by state security, intimidation of family members, threats of prosecution - all formed part of the arsenal used by the authorities to pressure independent journalists to stop their work.
Claudia Márquez Linares, who was responsible for bringing out another issue of De Cuba after the arrests of its original editors, was warned that she would be imprisoned if another issue appeared. This is how the authorities managed to maintain their complete control over the news and information to which Cubans have access. Television, radio and print media were all controlled by the Cuban Communist Party’s central committee though its Department of Revolutionary Orientation (DOR).
The government was clearly bent on causing further disruption to the dissident ranks. It tried to discredit Elizardo Sánchez, the head of the most important human rights organisation, in August by portraying him as an agent of the political police. Thereafter, there was no sign of any positive evolution. On the contrary the authorities announced “another year of battles” at the end of the year.
30 journalists imprisoned
The editor of the Cooperativa Avileña de Periodistas Independientes (CAPI) news agency, Pedro Argüelles Morán, 55, was arrested at his home in the central city of Ciego de Ávila on 18 March 2003. In a search of his home, police seized books, radios and a video camera that were used in evidence against him in his trial on 4 Avril. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for violating Law 88 on Cuba’s “independence and economy.” In their verdict, the judges said he had written “967 counter-revolutionary articles” in the past three years. Argüelles often wrote about human rights violations. He was also accused of being in touch with US diplomats in Havana.
He was initially held in a prison in Santa Clara (160 km from his home). When his wife, Yolanda Vera, went to see him there on 21 May, she was told he had been moved to Havana’s Combinado del Este, more than 400 km from Ciego de Ávila. Argüelles joined the dissident movement in 1992, as a human rights activist. He began working as an independent journalist in 1995.
Víctor Rolando Arroyo Carmona, 51, was arrested on 18 March at his home in the western province of Pinar del Río where he had been a correspondent for the Union de Períodistas y Escritores Cubanos Independientes (UPECI) since 1996. At the start of April, he was sentenced to 26 years in prison for undermining “the state’s independence and integrity.” He contributed to the website cubanet.org and the US government’s Radio Martí, both based in Florida. He also ran an independent library.
He was transferred to Chafarina prison in the eastern province of Guantánamo, more than 1,000 km from his home. His family reported in June and July that his health was deteriorating : he had lost between 15 and 20 kg, he had an infectious disease and high blood pressure, and he was not getting the necessary treatment. His wife, Elsa González Padron, announced in August that she was waiving matrimonial visits so she would not have to undergo the extremely thorough body searches. Arroyo worked for the government as a planning specialist until 1992 when he was fired because of differences with his superiors, and was reclassified as an agricultural worker.
Mijail Barzaga Lugo, 35, of the Agencia Noticiosa de Cuba (ANC) independent news agency was arrested at his Havana home on 20 March. He was tried with five other defendants two weeks later, on 4 April. He was accused of producing “subversive and counter-revolutionary” reports for several exile websites such as cubanet.org, cubaliberal.org and payolibre.com. He was also accused of expressing “reactionary and subversive” views with the “deliberate intent of helping the United States in its policies of aggression” during interviews for Radio Martí. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison under Law 88 and was transferred to the Villa Clara provincial penitentiary in the city of Santa Clara, 270 km from Havana at the end of April. He was subsequently moved again to Guamajal prison in the same province. He was put in a punishment cell several times in September and October for protesting against “inhuman” prison conditions.
Carmelo Díaz Fernández, 65, the editor of the Agencia de Prensa Sindical Independiente (APSIC) news agency and a trade unionist activist, was arrested in Havana on 19 March. He was sentenced on 5 April to 15 years in prison for jeopardising “the state’s independence and integrity.” He was found guilty of activities that “little by little endanger Cuba’s independence and sovereignty” including the publication of “articles that distort Cuba’s reality in accordance with the interests of Yankee imperialism.” He wrote above all about labour rights violations.
He was transferred at the end of April to Guanajay prison in Havana province. His family reported that he had high blood pressure and lymphangitis (inflammation of the lymphatic vessels). Married to Elisa García, he was one of the leaders of the clandestine United Council of Cuban Workers (CUTC) and president of the Christian Labour Union of Cuba (a clandestine group founded in 1995). He also worked for the independent National Centre for Trade Union Training and specialised in labour law.
Oscar Espinosa Chepe, 62, was arrested at his Havana home on 19 March. He was tried on 3 April with five other dissidents and sentenced to 20 years in prison under Law 88. His wife was able to attend the trial and described it as an “outright farce.” She said : “The defendants did not have access to a lawyer until a few hours before the start of the trial. All the charges were trumped up. The sentences were decided in advance of the trial.” The court accused Espinosa of writing “fabricated and tendentious articles and reports about Cuba… used by the US interests section in its manoeuvres to discredit the Cuban government.”
He was transferred to Chafarina prison in the eastern province of Guantánamo, more than 900 km from Havana, at the end of April. He was subsequently moved to the Carlos J. Finlay military hospital after he became seriously ill and an international campaign was launched on the initiative of his wife, Miriam Leiva. A former government economist, he broke with the regime in 1992 and took part in various pro-democracy initiatives. His articles had been posted on the cubanet.org website since 1998 and he presented a weekly programme on Radio Martí. He was also a member of the Manuel Márquez Sterling Association and contributed to the dissident magazine De Cuba.
Independent journalist Alfredo Felipe Fuentes was arrested at the end of a search of his home in Artemisa (west of Havana) on 19 March in which a type-writer, a tape-recorder and pens were confiscated. He was sentenced to 26 years in prison on 7 April for working against “the state’s independence and integrity” under article 91 of the criminal code. He was above all accused of sending Radio Martí reports about opposition demonstrations that were not recognised by the authorities.
He was transferred at the end of April to Guamajal prison in Santa Clara province (more than 300 km from his home) and was subjected to the harshest regime of detention. His wife, Loida Valdes González, voiced concern about his prison conditions - bad food, solitary confinement and the poor state of his cell - and their effect on his health (he had high blood pressure and lower back pain). A former sports journalist with the government press, he joined the ranks of the dissidents in 1992. He also belonged to an illegal trade union and helped promote the Varela Project.
Juan Adolfo Fernández Sainz, 54, who was a reporter for the Patria independent agency, Havana correspondent of the Russian human rights agency Prima News and a contributor to Swedish newspapers, was arrested at the end of an eight-hour search of his Havana home on 19 March in which police confiscated his type-writer. He was tried on 4 April in Havana and sentenced to 15 years in prison under Law 88 for writing “subversive"articles for the website nueveprensa.org and for giving interviews to Radio Martí.
He was transferred to Holguín prison, 730 km from the capital, at the end of April. He staged three hunger strikes to protest against his prison conditions, especially the lack of medical treatment and restrictions on his visiting rights (his wife, Julia Nuñez Pacheco, could visit him only once every three months). A cellmate struck him very hard in the face on 6 December shortly after he was moved to a cell with non-political prisoners. A former interpreter with government agencies, he was fired in 1994 because of his political opinions. He began writing on political, social and religious matters for independent news media the next year. He is the father of a girl, Joana.
Miguel Galván Gutierrez, 38, of the independent Havana Press agency was arrested on 18 March in the village of Güines (in Havana province) where he lives. At the start of April, a court in Artemisa, west of Havana, sentenced him under article 91 of the criminal code to 26 years in prison. Two undercover government agents who had posed as dissidents testified against him at the trial.
He was transferred to Agüica prison in Colon (in Matanzas province) where he was put in solitary confinement. Suffering from dehydration, he lost 8 kg in the following weeks. His family complained at the end of June that his mail was being intercepted. He was punished several times with confinement in a cell without water or electricity for staging hunger strikes or other forms of protest about his prison conditions or for getting messages about his conditions smuggled out of the prison. An engineer by training, he was also an activist in a trade union not recognised by the authorities and he helped collect signatures for the Varela Project petition.
Independent journalist Julio Cesar Gálvez Rodríguez, 58, was arrested at his Havana home on the morning of 19 March, at the end of a search of his home that had begun on the afternoon of the previous day. All of his journalistic material was confiscated. The Havana province popular tribunal sentenced him at the start of April to 15 years in prison under Law 88 on account of his ties with foreign media and “subversive” articles aiming to “destabilise and destroy the Cuban revolution from within.” He wrote for Cuban exile publications or Florida-based newspapers.
He was transferred on 26 April to Villa Clara prison in the city of Santa Clara (270 km from Havana). His wife, Beatriz del Carmen Pedroso Leon, on several occasions circulated information he had smuggled out of prison. Usually it was about his very harsh prison conditions. In October, he criticised the awful food and the fact that he was only allowed out for exercise at the hottest time of the day, and he said he had high blood pressure that was not being treated properly. He was also suffering from renal colic, back pain and osteoarthritis. A former bus company employee and physical education teacher, he later became a sports and culture reporter for the government press. He began writing for the independent press in July 2001 after being fired for having links with the United Council of Cuban Workers, a trade union that is not recognised by the authorities.
Edel Jose García Díaz, 54, founder and editor of the Centro Norte del País agency, was arrested in Havana on 18 March. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison under Law 88 for contributing to Radio Martí and Florida-based websites and for helping to produce an independent journalists’ newsletter, Expresion Libre, in Cuba. The main prosecution witnesses were two known dissident journalists who turned out to be undercover state security agents.
García was transferred to Boniato prison in Santiago de Cuba, 850 km from Havana. His wife, Maria Margarita Borges, reported in mid-October that he had a prostate ailment, eye problems, haemorrhoids and a kidney cyst. A philology graduate, he had been an independent journalist for many years. An official put pressure on him in 1997 in an attempt to make him to give up his journalist activities.
Jose Luis García Paneque of the independent agency Libertad, based in the eastern province of Las Tunas, was arrested by state security agents on 18 March and was sentenced to 24 years in prison on 4 April. His wife, Yamile Yánez Labrada, said he was accused of collaborating with “foreign powers.” In a search of his home, police seized a fax machine, a type-writer, a radio and many documents. They also took medicine and four stethoscopes. García was a doctor in Las Tunas and had even been a surgeon at the Ernesto Che Guevara hospital until he was fired.
After being transferred to El Tipico prison in Las Tunas, he reportedly lost a lot of weight. At the end of October, it was reported that he was undergoing an attack of claustrophobia for the second time. An inmate in an adjoining cell said he “is banging his head against the walls, crying a lot, and has stopped eating.” Despite receiving psychotropic drugs, he could not stand his solitary confinement, the poor food, and the restriction to one visit every three months from his wife and children. Prior to his arrest, he also ran an independent library.
Ricardo González Alfonso, 52, was arrested at his home on 18 March. Reporters Without Borders’ correspondent in Havana since 1998, he used to send the organisation weekly reports about press freedom violations in Cuba. With his friend Raúl Rivero, he created the Manuel Márquez Sterling Association in May 2001 to train independent journalists, who are often self-taught. He launched the bimonthly De Cuba in December 2002. This was the first time that independent journalists - who until then had been forced to send their articles abroad to get published - tried to break the Communist Party’s news media monopoly inside Cuba.
González was tried with Rivero on 4 April and was sentenced to 20 years in prison for threatening “the state’s independence and integrity” under article 91 of the criminal code. The eight opposition witnesses included neighbours and two undercover state security agents who had posed as independent journalists.
González was transferred at the end of April to “Kilo 8” prison in Camagüey, more than 500 km from Havana, where he was subjected to a “very severe” regime of detention. He was briefly hospitalised with health problems in November. His wife, Alida Viso Bello, accused the authorities of refusing to give him the necessary tests. He was moved on 6 November to a cell for non-political prisoners. After cellmates stole some of his personal effects, he went on hunger strike from 8 to 24 December to demand a transfer to a cell with less violent inmates. He got his demand.
Independent journalist Alejandro González Raga, 45, was arrested at his home in the eastern province of Camagüey on 20 March. He was tried on 4 April with three other journalists by the Camagüey provincial court and was sentenced to 14 years in prison under article 91 of the criminal code for working for the foreign press and for visiting the US interests section in Havana. He was alleged to have endangered Cuba’s “territorial integrity” by writing about “very sensitive” issues such as “shortages due to the economic crisis, relations with other countries, television programmes and the education budget.” He also helped collect signatures for the Varela Project petition. After the trial, he was transferred to Canaleta prison in Ciego de Ávila, about 100 km from his home in Camagüey. He is married to Berta Bueno Fuentes.
Iván Hernández Carrillo, 32, the Patria news agency’s correspondent in Moron (in Matanzas province), was arrested by state security on 18 March. He was tried at the start of April, sentenced to 25 years in prison under Law 88, and transferred to the Holguín provincial prison where he was held with six other dissidents. He was subsequently put in solitary confinement under the harshest regime of detention, in which he was initially limited to one family visit every four months and was denied matrimonial visits. He went on hunger strike in mid-October after he was put in a punishment cell for protesting against the refusal of the prison authorities to give him the necessary treatment for his high blood pressure. Carrillo used to be active in several trade union and political organisations that are not recognised by the authorities, he was a Varela Project activist, and he had an independent library in his home.
Normando Hernández González, the editor of the Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de Camagüey (CPIC) agency, was arrested in Camagüey on 24 March after eluding an earlier attempt to arrest him on 18 March by hiding. He was tried with three other journalists on 4 April and sentenced to 25 years in prison for violating article 91 of the criminal code. The indictment said his articles for cubanet.org and his interviews for Radio Martí were “socially very dangerous” and were aimed at “creating the conditions necessary for an armed intervention by a foreign power.” He was also accused of receiving payment from the United States for his work.
After his trial, he was sent to Boniato prison in Santiago de Cuba. When his wife, Yaraí Reyes Marín, was finally able to visit him, she was subjected to a detailed search which she called a “humiliation.” Hernández went on hunger strike with several other political prisoners in August to protest against their prison conditions : poor hygiene due to the presence of rats, cockroaches, bedbugs and mosquitoes, food that was often unfit to eat, restrictions on family visits and solitary confinement in a damp, leaky cell. To break the strike, the authorities transferred him to “Kilo 5.5” prison in Pinar del Río province, 700 km from his wife and young daughter. It was reported in December that he was put in a punishment cell for refusing to wear a prisoner’s uniform. Normando Hernández González, 32, is the father of a baby girl.
Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, 36, of the Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental (APLO) was arrested in the eastern city of Guantanamo on 19 March. At his trial on 3 April, he was accused of sending fabricated or doctored reports to news media and websites based in the United States and Guatemala with the aim of “discrediting” and “destabilising” the regime, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison under Law 88. He was at first held in Boniato prison in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, but he was transferred to “Kilo 8” prison in Camagüey province in a move by the authorities to break up a hunger strike which he and other political prisoners launched to protest against prison conditions.
At the start of November, he was moved to “Kilo 7” prison in the same province, where he was put with non-political prisoners. He complained at the end of December about bad food and terrible hygiene, which he blamed for the loss of skin pigmentation he was suffering from. He also protested against the refusal of the authorities to give him the medicine, clothes and letters his family had been sending him. Herrera was also a member of two small, illegal groups, the Cuban Movement of Young People for Democracy and the Pedro Luis Boitel Association of Political Prisoners. He served a four-year prison sentence from 1997 to 2001 for trying to leave the country illegally. He is married to Ileana Danger Hardy.
Jose Ubaldo Izquierdo Hernández, 37, the correspondent of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro agency in Güines (in Havana province), was arrested at his home on 18 March and was sentenced by a Havana court on 7 April to 16 years in prison for violating article 91 of the criminal code. He was known for his articles about the environment and public health that were posted on the cubanet.org website.
He was sent to “Kilo 5.5” prison in Pinar del Río province, almost 200 km from his home. He was injured on 27 June when he fell down a stairway while being led out, shackled, for exercise. It was reported in early October that his prison conditions had got worse. He also complained that his wife was being subjected to a humiliating search whenever she visited him. Izquierdo also used to run an independent library in his home where neighbours could borrow books.
Aged 60, Hector Fernando Maseda Gutierrez of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro agency was arrested at his Havana home on 18 March and was sentenced to 20 years in prison on 3 April for taking part in Radio Martí programmes and for sending articles to the website cubanet.org, the magazine Perfiles Liberales (published by the Freidrich Naumann Foundation in Germany) and the Spanish magazine Encuentro. His wife, Laura Pollán Toledo, said his right to a proper legal defence was not respected and he was not able to see his lawyer until a few hours before the trial.
He was sent to Villa Clara prison in Santa Clara, 270 km from the capital. His wife accused the authorities of intercepting his mail and refusing to pass on the medicine he needs for a skin ailment and several allergies. A former nuclear engineer, he was fired at the end of the 1980s for “ideological impropriety.” He is also vice-president of the - illegal - Democratic Liberal Party.
Mario Enrique Mayo Hernández, 38, the editor of the Felix Varela agency, was arrested on 19 March in Camagüey. He was tried with three other journalists on 4 April by a special court for state security crimes and was sentenced to 20 years in prison for violating article 91 of the criminal code by writing “subversive” articles for the website nuevaprensa.org and contributing regularly to Radio Martí. An undercover state security agent who had posed as a dissident testified at the trial that he also surfed the Internet inside the US interests section in Havana.
On 24 April, he was sent more than 200 km from his home to the Holguín provincial prison, where he was subjected to the harshest regime of detention despite suffering from high blood pressure and bleeding. When his wife, Maydelín Guerra Alvarez, visited him on 15 August, she was forced to remove virtually all her clothes in a search she called a “deliberate humiliation,” and she was not allowed to give him a basket of food. He and other political prisoners went on hunger strike in mid-October when a fellow inmate was put in the punishment cell just for complaining that his high blood pressure was not being treated.
He was transferred on 8 November to a prison in Santiago de Cuba and from then on he was put with non-political prisoners. As a result, he was in constant fear of violence from his fellow inmates, who are often encouraged by the authorities to harass political prisoners. A lawyer by training, he was fired because of his political views. He founded the Felix Varela agency in 2001.
Jorge Olivera Castillo, 41, the editor of the Havana Press agency, was arrested at his Havana home on 18 March and was tried with three other journalists on 5 April. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison for writing articles for the website nuevaprensa.org and the Spanish magazine Encuentro that were deemed under Law 88 to be “against Cuba’s national independence and economy.” A type-writer, a Super 8 video camera, video cassettes and audio cassettes that were seized in a search of his home were alleged to have been received from US diplomats. Like his fellow defendants, Olivera acknowledged the facts but said he was just practising “uncensored journalism in the service of the truth.”
He was transferred at the end of April to Chafarina prison in Guantanamo province, more than 900 km from his home. His wife, Nancy Alfaya Hernández, said he lost 15 kg in the following weeks. He had a colon ailment and was subject to constant gastro-intestinal bleeding. Olivera was a TV news journalist with the state radio and television broadcaster ICRT for 10 years. He was detained for three days in 1992 when he tried to leave the island clandestinely. Thereafter he joined the ranks of the dissidents and founded Havana Press with two other journalists in 1995.
Aged 33, Pablo Pacheco Avila of the Cooperativa Avileña de Periodistas Independientes (CAPI) agency was arrested at his home in the central city of Ciego de Avila on 19 March and was tried together with Pedro Argüelles Morán by the Ciego de Ávila provincial people’s court at the start of April. He was accused of writing articles that “deliberately distorted Cuban reality and incited social indiscipline and a climate of conflict and civil disobedience.” The prosecutors also alleged that he had given 563 interviews for Radio Martí.
After being sentenced to 20 years in prison for violating Law 88, he was sent to Agüica prison in Colon (in Matanzas province), more than 200 km from his home. It was reported in November that he had lost 11 kg and was suffering stomach problems and high blood pressure. His prison conditions were harsh : he never saw daylight, he requests to see a chaplain were refused, and his food was incompatible with his medicine. After studying sport, Pacheco joined the illegal Democratic Solidarity Party and the news agency Patria, which he left to join the CAPI. He is married to Oleivis García Echemendía.
Fabio Prieto Llorente, the editor of the Agencia de Prensa Independiente Isla de Pinos, was arrested on 19 March on the southwestern Isle of Youth (also called Isle of Pines). He was sentenced at the start of April to 20 years in prison, although the prosecutor had requested only 15 years. He was found guilty under article 91 of the criminal code of acting “against the state’s independence and territorial integrity” because he sent regular reports about human rights violations on the Isle of Youth to the Havana Press agency and the former website cubafreepress.org. He was sent to Guanajay prison in Havana province where he was held with non-political prisoners who stole his belongings. He was put in a punishment cell during the summer for “offending” a guard.
Alfredo Pulido Lopez of the El Mayor agency was arrested in the eastern city of Camagüey on 19 March and was tried along with three other independent journalists on 4 April by the Camagüey provincial people’s court. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison for violating article 91 of the criminal code because he wrote “tendentious articles” and had entries for foreign news media and US diplomats in his address book. Aged 42 at the time of his trial and suffering from hypoglycaemia (glucose deficiency), he was transferred at the end of April to Havana’s Combinado del Este prison and was put in solitary confinement. A doctor by training, he was also an activist in the (illegal) Christian Liberation Movement in support of the Varela Project. He is married to Rebeca Rodríguez Souto.
Raúl Rivero Castañeda, founder and editor of Cuba Press and key figure of the independent press in Cuba, was arrested by state security at his home on Peñalver street in Havana on 20 March and was tried on 4 April with Ricardo González Alfonso. They were both sentenced to 20 years in prison for violating article 91 of the criminal code. Two undercover state security agents who had posed as independent journalists were witnesses for the prosecution. One of them, Nestor Baguer, said inter alia that Rivero was an alcoholic. Rivero was above all accused of writing “tendentious” articles for foreign publications. “I don’t conspire, I write,” Rivero said in his defence.
He was transferred on 28 April to the maximum-severity prison of Canaleta near Ciego de Ávila, 430 km east of Havana. At first his health declined sharply and by August he had lost 20 kg. Subsequently his health improved and then stabilised. The authorities denied him the right in September to a religious wedding with his wife, Blanca Reyes, with whom he already had a civil marriage. A former journalist with the government press, Rivero broke with the regime in 1991 and created Cuba Press in 1995. He is also a poet of international renown.
Omar Rodríguez Saludes, 37, a photojournalist and editor of the Nueva Prensa agency, was arrested in Havana on 18 March and was sentenced on 5 April to 27 years in prison, the longest sentence passed on an independent journalist. He was accused of jeopardising the state’s independence and integrity under article 91 of the criminal code by writing many articles about harassment and repression of dissidents and for helping launch the dissident magazine De Cuba.
He was transferred at the end of April to Camagüey prison, more than 500 km from Havana and his family. His wife, Ileana Marrero Jova, voiced concern at the end of November about his prison conditions and state of health (he has kidney problems). He was transferred to Nieves Morejon prison in Cabaiguán (in Sancti Spíritus province) in December. Rodríguez is one of the pioneers of the independent press. He began in 1995 as a contributor to the BPIC agency before joining Nueva Prensa. He calls himself a “blind” photographer because he hardly ever sees his photos in print, as they are all published abroad.
Aged 56, Omar Moises Ruiz Hernández of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro agency was arrested by state security in Villa Clara (in the central province of Santa Clara) on 20 March and was sentenced at the start of April under article 91 of the criminal code to 18 years in prison for “actions again the state’s independence and integrity.” He was accused of contributing to the website nuevaprensa.org and to Radio Martí and of being paid for his articles. He wrote above all about human rights violations. He was transferred to the Guantánamo provincial penitentiary and put in solitary confinement. His mail was regularly intercepted and he was sometimes banned from making phone calls. Married to Barbara Rojo Arias, he was also an active member of the (illegal) Social Democratic Party.
Aged 52, Manuel Vázquez Portal of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro agency was arrested at his Havana home on 19 March. He was tried with three other journalists on 3 April and was sentenced to 18 years in prison for violating Law 88. Prosecutors cited his articles published on the website cubanet.org and his interviews for Radio Martí. He was sent to Boniato prison in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, more than 800 km from Havana. He and other political prisoners went on hunger strike at the end of August to protest against their prison conditions, above all the insufficient food, the lack of medical treatment for inmates who were ill, and the poor hygiene resulting from infestations of rats, mosquitoes, flies and cockroaches.
To break the strike, the authorities transferred him at the start of September to Aguadores prison near the city of Santiago de Cuba. He called off his hunger after his weight had fallen to 49 kg. A former journalist with the government press and a writer, Vázquez was expelled from UNEAC (the official association of writers and artists) in 1995 because of his dissident views. He thereafter became one of the leading lights of the independent press, thanks to his lively style and sense of humour. He is married to Yolanda Huerga Cedeño.
Three journalists arrested before 2003 and still held at the end of the year
Elena Maria González, the wife of Carlos Alberto Domínguez of the Cuba Verdad independent agency, was able to visit her husband at the “maximum-severity” prison of Valle Grande, 60 km from the capital, on 28 January 2003. In an interview for the magazine Carta de Cuba, published in spring 2003, she said her 49-year-old husband had not changed and his morale was high. Three months after his arrest in February 2002, he renounced his right to a lawyer because the lawyer he had was not allowed to meet him or see his case file. He was hospitalised several times with high blood pressure and migraines.
He was transferred to Havana’s Combinado del Este prison on 13 October 2003 for taking part in a hunger strike by political prisoners to protest against the use of violence against three of them. It was reported on 5 November that he had cardiovascular problems. He 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. He was reportedly charged with “affront” and “disturbing the peace.” He heads the Instituto de Derecho and is a member of the Partido Democrático 30 de Noviembre, two small, illegal groups. He had still not been tried at the end of 2003.
Carlos Brizuela Yera, a contributor to the Colegio de Períodistas Independientes de Camagüey (CIPC) independent agency, was insulted and hit by a guard in the provincial provisional detention centre in the eastern province of Holguín on 31 January for demanding the return of confiscated documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As a result of this incident, his right to conjugal visits was suspended for two months. His wife had reported at the start of January that he was suffering from high fevers that were not being treated.
He was arrested on 4 March 2002 while taking part with Lester Tellez Castro (see below) and several human rights activists in a protest about police violence against a fellow journalist. On 27 August 2002, the Ciego de Ávila prosecutor requested a five-year prison sentence for “insulting an official”, “public disorder”, “resisting arrest” and “disobeying authorities.” Brizuela has never been allowed to see his lawyer since his arrest. No date for a trial had been set at the end of 2003.
It was reported on 9 December that the health of Lester Tellez Castro, the head of the Agencia de Prensa Libre Avileña (APLA), had suffered a marked decline. Blind in the right eye for many years, Tellez said his sight in the left eye was continuing to decline. He was not receiving the necessary treatment for this or his blood pressure problems at Canaleta prison in Ciego de Ávila, where he was being held.
His family said he was in a small, dark damp cell that he was sometimes not allowed to leave for weeks on end. This prevented him from seeing daylight and from phoning his family, although the regulations allow this. His lawyer still did not know when he would be tried. Earlier in the year, in February, he had been briefly hospitalised because of his eye problems. He was arrested on 4 March 2002 while taking part with Carlos Brizuela Yera (see above) in a protest about an assault by several policemen on a fellow journalist. On 27 August 2002, the Ciego de Ávila prosecutor requested a six-year prison sentence for “insulting an official”, “public disorder”, “resisting arrest” and “disobeying authorities.” No date for a trial had been set at the end of 2003.
A journalist freed in 2003
Bernardo Arevalo Padron, the former editor of the Línea Sur Press agency, was freed on 13 November 2003 on completing a six-year sentence. The prison authorities gave him his release notification (“Carta de libertad”) with no further explanation. Thereafter, he resumed working as a journalist in the Jose Maceo independent news agency and hoped to leave the country. He had been moved from one prison to another since his arrest in November 1997. He was also held in labour camps, where he had to cut sugar-cane. The last place he was held was Ariza prison in the central province of Cienfuegos, to which he was transferred in July 2002.
His wife, Libertad Arevalo, said he had many ailments in prison, including lower back pain, cardiac insufficiency and leptospirosis (a bacterial infection occurring in rodents that can be caught by humans). He was convicted on 28 November 1997 of “insulting” President Castro and Vice-President Carlos Lage after he called them “liars” in an interview for Radio Martí. He said they had not respected the democratic undertakings signed by all Latin American leaders at a 1996 summit. He could have been released on parole after completing half of his sentence in October 2000, but the prison authorities blocked this on the grounds that he did not cooperate with his “re-education programme.”
Seven journalists detained
Fernando Ruiz Parra, an Argentine professor of journalism from Austral University in Buenos Aires, was arrested in his Havana hotel on 11 February 2003. He was taken to a police station and then to prison, and was interrogated four times before being released the next day. The authorities accused him of conducting journalistic activities on a tourist visa. “If I had requested a press visa, I would never have received one,” Ruiz said. He had arrived in Cuba on 3 February and had been investigating the independent press, meeting several journalists in the provinces. The police confiscated his notes, recordings and address book and, on 13 February, put him on a flight bound for Argentina, via Panama.
Juan Carlos Garcell of the Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental (APLO) was briefly detained on 22 February while trying to cover a police raid on a house in Puerto Padre, in Las Tunas province. He was released after being made to pay a fine.
Ramon Armas Guerrero and Omar Dario Perez Hernández of the El Mayor and Nueva Prensa agencies were briefly detained by state security in the central city of Camagüey on 24 February as they were preparing to cover local opposition demonstrations marking the 7th anniversary of the shooting down by Cuban air force fighters of two aircraft with the Florida-based anti-Castro group “Hermanos al Rescate.”
Claudia Márquez Linares, the editor of the dissident magazine De Cuba and Reporters Without Borders’ correspondent, was detained and questioned by state security for two hours on 29 October. During her interrogation, she was warned that the authorities would not tolerate any more issues of De Cuba. Márquez had brought out a new issue of the magazine in September.
Abel Escobar Ramírez, the independent Cuba Press agency’s correspondent in Moron (350 km east of Havana), was arrested by the National Revolutionary Police (PNR) on 29 October and taken to state security regional headquarters in Ciego de Ávila. One of the arresting officers told him he had violated Law 88, which protects “Cuba’s independence and economy.” They seized a tape-recorder and cassettes with reports for the website nuevaprensa.org. He was interrogated several times about his activities before being freed three days later.
A policeman approached Ana Leonor Díaz Chamizo of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro agency at a Havana bus stop on 10 December and ordered her not to continue her journey. She had been on her way to an event organised by the “Leonor Perez” Mothers Committee - a group not recognised by the authorities - to mark International Human Rights Day.
Five journalists physically attacked
María Elena Alpizar of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro agency was hit by a member of the staff of the “Nieves Morejon” prison in the town of Cabaiguán on 10 February 2003 as she covering a demonstration by dissidents in support of a political prisoner who had gone on hunger strike.
Stones were thrown at the homes of Jose Ubaldo Izquierdo Hernández of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro agency and Miguel Galván Gutierrez of the Havana Press agency in Güines, in Havana province, on the night of 8 March. The two journalists believed state security orchestrated the attack.
A stone was thrown on 25 June at the home of Abel Escobar Ramírez, the Cuba Press agency’s correspondent in Moron, slightly injuring his six-year-old daughter. He said this was the result of meetings organised in his neighbourhood by state security in which he was named as a “terrorist” and “mercenary.” During an interrogation session, two state security officers told Escobar that many people in the area wanted to attack him.
Adela Soto Alvarez of the Nueva Prensa agency was attacked at the railway station in Santa Clara on 28 September. She was hit by two people was she walking to a train carriage at the far end of the station platform. The railway company had just made her change her ticket for one with a seat in this carriage without explaining why. Three policemen were present but did not intervene. Two months earlier, on 21 July, her daughter was summoned for questioning by state security officials and was asked to convince her to give up her journalistic activities.
Harassment and obstruction
A state security agent visited Marilín Lahera, the editor of the La Voz de Oriente agency in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, and then Jose Antonio Reiner of the same agency on 24 January 2003 and asked them to accompany him to an interior ministry branch office. As they had not received any written summons, both refused to go. No further action was taken.
State security agents prevented Isabel Rey, the Cuba Press agency’s correspondent in Santa Clara, from leaving the home of a government opponent for several hours on 24 February. Rey had gone there to cover dissident activities marking the 7th anniversary of the shooting down by Cuban air force fighters of two aircraft with the Florida-based anti-Castro group “Hermanos al Rescate.”
Jean-Paul Kauffman, the editor of the French quarterly L’Amateur de Cigare, was asked by police on 25 February to stop displaying copies of his latest issue at his stand in the fifth annual Havana Cigar Festival of 24-28 February. Kauffman said representatives of the festival’s organisers, Habanos SA, told him this was required because the magazine had a drawing of Cuban revolutionary icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara with Mickey Mouse ears. Kauffman called it a “grotesque” act of censorship. The festival is held each year in Havana for cigar industry representatives.
It was reported on 8 April that the Cuba Press agency’s correspondent in Moron (in Ciego de Ávila province), Abel Escobar Ramírez, had received an official warning that he would be sentenced to four years in prison if he did not find a proper job within 72 hours.
Bernard Briançon of the French independent TV production company Mediasens was stopped as he was going through customs at Havana international airport on 4 May. Officials led him to a room in the basement, searched his bags and confiscated eight video cassettes containing interviews with dissidents. They gave no explanation and just had him sign a “certificate of withholding and rectification.”
State security agents on 7 May searched the home of Rafael Ferro Salas, the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro agency’s correspondent in Hermanos Cruz (in Pinar del Río province), confiscating his fax machine and computer and warning him that he would be in trouble if he did not stop his journalistic activities.
State security agents threatened Fara Armenteros, the editor of the Union de Periodistas y Escritores Cubanos Independientes agency, and Gilberto Figueredo, a contributor to the Puerto Rico-based magazine Carta de Cuba, in their home on 8 May. They were told to stop their journalistic work or risk being arrested under Law 88, which sanctions state security violations and any collaboration with the United States.
Luis Cino Alvarez of the Nueva Prensa agency and Ana Rosa Veitía Becquer of the Union de Períodistas y Escritores Cubanos Independientes (UPECI) agency were visited in their home by state security agents on 14 May. One of the agents said : “The independent press is finished in Cuba.” They were told to stop their journalistic work and their equipment was seized. Two days later, Ernesto Roque Sintero of the Cooperativa de Periodistas Independientes (CPI) agency was threatened with 10 to 20 years in prison for “treason.”
Oscar Mario González Perez of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro agency was threatened in his home by state security agents on 23 May. They tried to intimidate him by saying he could be sentenced to 25 years in prison, and they urged him to leave for Europe where his daughter lives, assuring him that the authorities would not stop him from going. He learned on 22 August his request for permission to leave the country had been refused.
María Elena Alpízar of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro agency was summoned to the interior ministry office in Santa Clara during the week of 2 June in response to a letter she had written to the authorities complaining that she had been attacked several times by state security agents. The interior ministry official who interviewed her called the letter “sarcastic” and said she should have attached a medical certificate. He dismissed the marks on her body as the “collateral damage of her work,” she said.
Jose Manuel Caraballo, Nilo Alejandro Gutierrez and Tico Morales Agostino of the APLA agency and Jesús Alvarez Castillo and Abel Escobar Ramírez of the Cuba Press agency were summoned by a state security official in Moron (in Ciego de Ávila province) on 10 June. The official told them that “the dissident movement must die now,” but they refused to give a written undertaking to give up journalism. When Caraballo and Gutierrez were summoned three days earlier, Caraballo was threatened with a 20-year prison sentence if he did not stop working as a journalist.
An activist with the official Federacion de Mujeres Cubanas (Federation of Cuban Women) told María Lopez of the trade union press agency Lux Info Press that she would be forced to leave the island if she did not register as a member of the movement. Registration in an official “mass movement” is obligatory.
Carlos Serpa Maceira, the UPECI agency’s correspondent on the southwestern Isle of Youth, was threatened with 20 years in prison by two state security agents who went to his home on 25 June. They reminded him that his colleague Victor Rolando Arroyo of the same agency was already in prison, they accused him of sending articles to the Florida-based website cubanet.org, and they told him the authorities already had a criminal case file on him.
A state security agent went to the home of Amarilis Cortina Rey of the Cuba Verdad agency on 16 July and threatened her with imprisonment if she did not disband the solidarity committee she was setting up for her colleagues in prison. Two other members of the committee, Juan Carlos Linares of the Cuba Verdad agency and Fara Armenteros of the UPECI agency, received visits from state security agents the next day.
Omar Dario Perez Hernández, the Nueva Prensa agency’s correspondent in the central city of Camagüey, was interrogated by a state security agent on 21 July. The agent told him he could be accused of “serving imperialist interests” and be tried under Law 88 (which provides for sentences of up to 20 years in prison) if he continued with his “subversive activities.” He was summoned again on 12 August.
The website nuevaprensa.org reported on 26 August that four antennae for jamming Radio Martí‘s signals had been installed in the town of Palma Soriano, in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba. Antennae with the same function were also installed in San Felipe (in Havana province) and in other parts of the country, the website said.
Jose Manuel Caraballo, the editor of the Agencia de Prensa Libre Avileña in Moron (in Ciego de Ávila province) was sentenced to three years of public service work on 5 September for allegedly forging attendance certificates when he taught at a tourism training centre. The training centre’s deputy director, the secretary and another teacher were also convicted on the same charge, but Caraballo was the only one not to have his sentence commuted. He filed an appeal. Three months earlier, on 10 June, Caraballo had been summoned by a state security official in Moron who asked him to sign an undertaking that he would give up independent journalism. He had also been summoned for questioning on 7 June and was threatened with a 20-year prison sentence if he did not stop being journalist.
The housing institute threatened to evict Carlos Serpa Maceira of the UPECI news agency and his family from their apartment in La Demajagua, near Nueva Gerona (on the Isle of Youth), on 22 September after he inaugurated a video screening room in his home called “Sin censura” (Without Censorship). He was also accused of contributing to Radio Martí and the website cubanet.org. A human rights activist was at the same time warned that his equipment would be confiscated and his phone line disconnected if he continued to let Maceira use his fax machine.
State security agents searched the home of Jesús Alvarez Castillo of the Cuba Press agency in Moron (in Ciego de Ávila province) on 29 October, confiscating more than 300 books and magazines. Alvarez said the raid was linked to his work as a journalist and pointed out that he had been detained by the political police for two hours on 19 September while he was visiting Las Tunas province.
Blanca Reyes, the wife of imprisoned poet and journalist Raúl Rivero Castañeda, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on 19 November that she had been denied permission to visit her son, who lives in Miami. The migration department refused to give her authorisation to leave the country without offering any explanation, she said. Reyes has constantly called for her husband’s release and spoken out about his prison conditions.
Maydelin Guerra Alvarez, the wife of imprisoned journalist Mario Enrique Mayo Hernández, was summoned to the state security offices in the eastern city of Camagüey on 25 November. During four hours of interrogation, she was threatened with a search of her home and imprisonment if she continued to circulate reports about her husband’s situation to organisations abroad and to send his articles to foreign media. The state security agents also threatened to stop her husband receiving visits. Before letting her go, they stressed that this was her last warning and the next time she would be detained.
Carlos Serpa Maceira of the UPECI agency was interrogated for four hours on 10 December by two state security officials, who threatened to prosecute him if he covered any events staged by dissidents that day to mark International Human Rights Day.