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Posted May 04, 2005 by Cubana in Castro's Cuba

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Area : 110,860 sq.km.
Population : 11,300,000
Language : Spanish
Head of state : President Fidel Castro

Women and mothers are now protesting against the dictatorship in Cuba, just as they once did against Argentina’s military rulers. Seven journalists were released from prison in 2004 as a result of their pressure and support from abroad, but 22 others were still being held. The regime also has no intention of relaxing its tight control of all news.

“I want to continue my journalism. Prison hasn’t put me off,” said dissident writer and poet Ral Rivero when he was freed on 30 November 2004. Writing, he added, was like breathing for him, not just a right.
Five other journalists and eight dissidents out of 75 arrested in March 2003 were freed during the year for health reasons but on terms that made them liable to be summarily returned to jail at the whim of the authorities. A seventh journalist, Carlos Alberto Domnguez Gonzlez, arrested in February 2002, was also released for health reasons.
All were freed partly as the result of international protests, especially sanctions against Cuba by the European Union (EU), that were sparked by the wave of arrests. The releases were seen as a goodwill gesture to EU members such as Spain that are pushing for an immediate change in EU policy towards Cuba. The 25 EU countries started to question the sanctions on 14 December 2004, thereby risking loss of a weapon to press for release of the other prisoners. Arrests of dissidents meanwhile continued.
The freeing of the prisoners was also due to a tireless campaign by their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, organised in a group called “The Ladies in White.” “Today, I’m just Blanca’s husband,” joked Rivero the day he emerged from prison.
His wife, Blanca Reyes, and the other women have decided to defy the machinery of repression. In early October, they camped out in Havana’s Revolution Square, where the regime organises its mass demonstrations, to demand that Angel Moya, a human rights activist among the jailed 75, be transferred to hospital for treatment. Every Sunday they assemble peacefully at the door of the church of Santa Rita, the patron saint of lost causes.
The protest is similar to that of the so-called “Mad Women of the Plaza de Mayo,” in Buenos Aires - the mothers of people who disappeared under the Argentine military dictatorship. The comparison is irksome for the regime, which tries to silence them. In early December, Laura Polln, wife of imprisoned journalist Hector Maseda, at whose home “The Ladies in White” meet each month, said her phone was often cut off and that she had found a hidden microphone in the house.


“Inhuman prison conditions”


22 journalists are still in jail, including Ricardo Gonzlez, the local Reporters Without Borders correspondent. They were accused of “undermining national independence” and “subversion,” each sentenced to between 14 and 27 years in prison and then transferred to jails several hundred kilometres from their home towns. Their families are only allowed to visit once every three months, instead of the usual every three weeks.
One of them, Carlos Brizuela Yera, is not part of the 75 arrested in 2003. He was picked up in March 2002 for protesting against brutal police treatment of a journalist colleague and sentenced to three years in prison on 26 April 2004.
“I spent 15 months in the lavatories of a barracks,” journalist Manuel Vzquez Portal told the French daily Le Monde after being freed on 23 June. “The first months were very hard, especially solitary confinement. I didn’t see or speak to anyone and it was hard to keep from going crazy.”
Another released journalist, Jorge Olivera, told Reporters Without Borders that “prison conditions are inhuman and cause psychological and physical damage. Sometimes the food is rotten and the water bad. I caught amoeba and you also have to fight clouds of mosquitoes, as well as cockroaches, rats, ants, bees and flies. The toilets are just a hole in the ground. We were only allowed out for an hour each day into a small yard where sometimes you couldn’t see the sun.”
Olivera was the last journalist to be freed, on 6 December. Like all the others, after a long time in solitary confinement he was put in a cell with common criminals, who were routinely used by the prison authorities to harass the political prisoners.
Those who are ill do not always get the care they need. Julia Nuez, wife of Adolfo Fernndez Sanz, is worried about here husband’s many ailments - emphysema, a kidney cyst, a stomach hernia, prostate shrinkage, high blood pressure and osteoarthritis. He has also lost more than 20 kgs.


A media “totally at the service of the workers”


The press freedom situation is still disastrous. Article 53 of the national constitution bans privately-owned media, “which ensures they are exclusively used to serve the workers and the interests of society.” The government-controlled press only carries propaganda articles and reports that are chosen, checked and edited according to the regime’s ideological line. This censorship is done by the Department of Revolutionary Guidance, an organ of the ruling Communist Party’s central committee.
The regime refuses to allow the official news provided to Cubans to be mixed up with any from other sources. Journalists who try to operate outside the state-run media are constantly hounded by the state security police (DES). Since the 2003 arrests, they too have been threatened with jail. But despite the repression, nearly 80 of them regularly send articles to magazines abroad and to Miami-based Internet websites such as cubanet.org and nuevaprensa.org.
News from outside the country is also monitored.
Broadcasts of the Miami-based US government-funded Radio Mart are jammed. People with secret TV receivers that can pick up foreign stations are regularly punished and the equipment seized. The foreign press is only available to tourists and diplomats.
Articles and reports by locally-based foreign journalists are read after they appear and their authors warned if Castro does not like the content. This has long earned him a place on the Reporters Without Borders worldwide list of “predators of press freedom.”
US President Georges W. Bush tightened the US embargo in May 2004 by cutting the number of trips US-residing Cubans were allowed to make to their country and limiting their right to send money to Cuba to just close relatives. The economically-weakened regime responded on 1 November by banning the US dollar. The government’s aim seemed to be to collect dollars by forcing Cubans to exchange them for convertible pesos.
Major trade agreements signed at the end of the year with China and Venezuela were expected to give the regime some respite. Also, despite Bush’s latest measures, the embargo has been considerably relaxed since the US senate in 2001 allowed farm products to be sold to Cuba for cash. The country has bought more than $1 billion worth of them from American firms since 2002, making the US its main food supplier.
“There won’t be a democratic change any time soon,” Rivero told Reporters Without Borders two days after he was freed. And indeed the official media predicted on 1 January 2005 “another year of struggle” as usual.

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