The situation of the media and the obstacles to press freedom cannot be separated from the tragic circumstances of the country in the wake of the devastating hurricanes Gustav and Ike between August 30 and September 7. The government of Raúl Castro has continued the totalitarian methods concerning the use of public information, the repression of the independent press and the reluctance to release the imprisoned journalists.
Although the government has not yet finished calculating the total damage caused by the two storms, partial estimates are more than $5 billion from the worst natural disaster in the past 75 years. The country was swept from east to west and a long period of recovery is predicted with huge material and human challenges ahead.
The hurricanes interrupted communications in a third of the country because of fallen trees and telephone poles and knocked down or damaged 20 broadcast transmission towers, cutting off radio and television signals in many central and western parts of the country.
A few days after the hurricanes, police warned several independent journalists that their cameras would be confiscated if they were found recording images and statements in the devastated areas. The national attorney general’s office said it would punish looting, corruption, price speculation and diversion of state resources with an “iron fist.” The Committees for Defense of the Revolution (CDR) asked their members to “become fierce guardians of legality” and to combat “any conduct that damages the prestige of the revolution.”
The authorities also have reinforced the controls on movement that prevent citizens whose official residence is in other provinces from living in or moving to Havana, according to Law 217 of 1997. The law focuses particularly on dissidents and independent journalists who try to move to the capital. These rules do not just prohibit moving without authorization but also restrict moves from one neighborhood of Havana to another.
On September 16, police stopped independent photographer Vladimir Calderón Frías and seized his electronic equipment as he traveled from Havana to Pinar del Río. The police stopped his car at a roadblock and confiscated his memory cards and other accessories. The officers argued that only members of the official Cuban press and foreign correspondents were authorized to enter towns affected by Hurricane Gustav. When he returned to Havana, the officers at the roadblock returned his equipment.
The expectations of change caused by the handover of power, officially confirmed on February 24, were blocked because of the paralysis in government structures, the limited effect of the measures that were implemented and the growing intervention by Fidel Castro in fundamental decisions, despite his announced retirement because of ill health. As the months pass it has become apparent that the Council of State’s agreement to consult him on all important strategic steps and foreign policy was not just flattery for an ailing former leader but inherent in the plans to prolong his leadership as a “soldier of ideas.”
The ideas and proposals in the articles (“Reflections”) published by Fidel Castro during the crisis of the hurricanes in August and September played and continue to play a more visible and decisive political role that the presence of Raúl Castro who disappeared from the political stage in the first 17 days after the storms. The ex-president’s “reflections” are prominently displayed in official publications and read during the principal radio and television programs.
In March the number of journalists in jail grew to 26 when Yordis García Fournier, editor of the independent publication Porvenir was sentenced to a year in jail. García Fournier, who lives in Guantánamo province, was arrested and convicted in a summary trial on September 3 on charges of resistance and disobedience.
Prison conditions are bloody and inhuman, with insufficient food, terrible hygiene, limited medical treatment and physical and emotional abuse of the prisoners.
Journalist Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, serving a 20-year sentence, has held several protests and fasts to express his opposition to reprisals by the guards in the provincial prison of Holguín. In July he sewed his mouth shut during a hunger strike that prison authorities forced him to break. In September he held another hunger strike to protest the reduction of family visits, the overcrowding in his cell and the denial of religious support.
The government continues to ignore international protests and family requests for special humanitarian release of a dozen journalists of the Group of 75 because of their precarious health and the advanced age of some of them.
Between September 19 and 23, journalist Pedro Argüelles Morán, sentence to 20 years, and Adolfo Fernández Saínz, with 15 years, held a hunger strike to demand the return of religious publications that were taken by authorities at Canaleta prison, Ciego de Avila. The protest ended when the publications were returned.
Normando Hernández, sentenced to 25 years, was transferred on June 2 to the provincial prison Kilo 12 in Camagüey after a long stay in the prison ward of the Carlos J. Finlay Military Hospital in Havana. He was intestinal malabsorption syndrome, vesicular polyps and high blood pressure. Currently he is in a small cell in the prison infirmary, but the diet is not appropriate for his condition. He is also under psychiatric care and taking strong tranquilizers. The Cuban government has refused to consider allowing him to leave on a humanitarian visa granted by the Costa Rican government in April of 2007. In addition he has had a U.S. visa to emigrate with his wife since 2001.
José Luis García Paneque, sentenced to 24 years, is in custody in the Las Mangas prison in Granma province. He suffers from anemia and malnutrition as a result of intestinal malabsorption syndrome. He also has been diagnosed with a kidney cyst and has serious nervous disorders. His wife and four young children emigrated to the United States at the beginning of 2007 amid constant harassment by the authorities and pro-government mobs who called them “terrorists” in the service of the United States.
Alfredo Pulido López, sentenced to 14 years, is in Kilo 7 prison in Camagüey. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and also has hemorrhoids and gastritis.
Pedro Argüelles Morán, sentenced to 20 years, has advanced cataracts in both eyes and has almost completely lost his sight.
Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, sentenced to 20 years, has ischemic heart disease, high blood pressure, cervical arthritis, asthma and liver and nerve disorders. Since the death of his ex-wife and two young daughters in an automobile accident last March, his mental health has deteriorated considerably.
Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, sentenced to 20 years, has had four surgeries (bladder and a fistula) since 2005. He has cervical arthritis, allergies, high blood pressure and digestive and circulatory disorders. His relatives reported on September 16 that he has bronchitis and is being held in a humid cell in Combinado del Este prison in Havana without receiving the medical treatment he needs. The cell has leaks and floods frequently.
One of the imprisoned journalists is handicapped: Miguel Galván, an engineer, who was sentenced to 26 years.
For the more than 60 independent journalists active throughout the country, harassment and police repression are more and more frequent routines. The movement is passing through a stage of revitalization as new people join, mostly youths with outstanding professional talent.
Since April, 71 acts of repression against the practice of independent journalism have been reported, including intimidation, fines, seizures, removal to the home province, temporary arrests, tapping of telephones and surveillance of postal and electronic correspondence. There have been many arrests near the U.S. interests office in Havana, where journalists go to get information and use the Internet. They are detained temporarily on charges of “provocative and mercenary acts” at the service of a foreign power.
The authorities also block independent bloggers from accessing and updating their pages. A dozen independent blogs, many written under pseudonyms, coexist with more than 200 blogs connected to official publications.
Eliades Acosta, chief of the Communist Party culture department, said access to new technologies is an essential factor in the “culture war,” which includes the use of blogs to attack Cuba’s positions.
On September 27, the first meeting of “Freelance Bloggers” was held in the Computing and Electronics Palace of La Havana. A small group of bloggers, electronic journalism experts and the promoters of this experience attended. Although this event was presented as a non-governmental initiative, some Administration institutions collaborated, but the most international well-known Cuban blogger, the philologist Yoani Sánchez, did not participate.
The most popular blog produced in Cuba is Generation Y by philologist Yoani Sánchez whose posts receive thousands of comments from all over the world. Sánchez, 33, won the Ortega y Gasset Prize in the electronic journalism category in May. The government refused to allow her to leave the country to go to the awards ceremony in Madrid. Fidel Castro himself broke the official silence in a recent memoir (Fidel, Bolivia y Algo Más). He attacked Sánchez and accused her of being an “agent at the service of imperialism.” He blamed foreign correspondents, and particularly the Mexican agency Notimex, of allowing themselves to be used for “a sapper’s work.”
Sánchez was denied an exit visa for the second time on September 22, which turned her into a “captive blogger” on the island.
Editors and contributors to religious and socio-cultural publications sponsored by the Catholic Church and independent international organizations frequently complain of veiled threats and interference in their editorial policies by partisan officials.
The cultural authorities try to supervise and control audio-visual productions by independent producers, a movement that emerged in the mid-90s when digital technology became inexpensive and widespread. The new wave of documentary filmmakers have taken advantage of the technological “democratization” to report on zones and conflicts that are not covered in official productions. The subjects of the documentaries include the resurgence of poor neighborhoods, racial discrimination, the crisis in housing, the increase in crime, police violence, dumpster divers (people who live on food taken from garbage cans), child prostitution, etc. According to young producers who have decided to leave the country to explore creative opportunities abroad, the surveillance of the school projects has been reinforced and the government restricts permission to film in public places. Some filmmakers have been detained by police while shooting and their recorded material has been confiscated.
Although the government’s Film Institute (ICAIC) organizes an annual festival in Havana for these productions, many works are excluded beforehand for alleged “artistic limitations.” The works are not distributed commercially nor shown on state television which is a way to restrict their effect on the Cuban public.
On April 1, the government authorized the sale of cell phones and computers to Cuban citizens. Although the prices of the equipment and cell phone service are inaccessible in Cuban currency (the average salary in Cuba is 408 pesos a month, about $17), the possibility of buying them opens a much wider telecommunications market in the medium term that is promising for the exercise of individual freedom. Before this measure, the only way to get a cell phone or computer was through a government agency or through a foreigner. In the past months, the booming cell phone industry has increased subscriber’s lines, which were only 164,000 last year. According to official figures, hurricanes damaged a total of 32,000 cell phone lines.
On May 20, President George W. Bush authorized sending cell phones to Cuba and said he would change the current regulation to permit the sale of cell phones and subscription to accounts from the United States. Havana has not reacted to this measure, although the state phone company ETECSA demands that cell phone users register with it.
On June 9, the official press announced the details of a joint project by Cuba and Venezuela to install an underwater fiber optic cable that will be ready in 2010 and allow high quality Internet connection.
Internet access is still restricted for the population. Only state agencies, educational institutions and foreigners who subscribe to the service in hard currency can connect to the Web. Most work and student places connected to the Internet cannot access Yahoo and MSN Hotmail. The Information and Communications Ministry has given priority to general use of the “intranet,” which only allows access to pages of Cuban publications and entities or those from abroad that support Cuban policies.
Currently there are 190,000 Internet users and 900,000 with e-mail in Cuba. The connection index is one of the lowest in the Western Hemisphere.
The Cuban government blames the United States for blocking access to international fiber optic cables that surround the island, one of which connects Cancun (Mexico) to Miami and passes just 32 kilometres from Havana. Cuba argues that limits imposed by Washington restrict its connection capacity and force it to use a satellite with slower and less efficient service.
At the beginning of July, the United States challenged Cuba to open access to the Internet to the whole population and asserted that Washington would not oppose the island’s connecting to the Web through a foreign company.
The installation of the International Relations Committee of the seventh session of the Cuban legislature on May 26 was marked by government threats and the modification of repressive tools used to silence independent expressions. Journalist and legislator Lázaro Barredo, editor of the government newspaper Granma, proposed a revision of Law 88/1999 and the Penal Code to sanction everyone who receives money from abroad to “subvert internal order.” He also suggested considering the proposal to extradite people who allegedly evaded justice or have cases pending in Cuban courts. He mentioned, among others, the exiled journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner.
The VIII Congress of the Cuban Journalists Union (UPEC), an official group with 3,680 members, was held from July 3 to 5 after a long series of preparatory meetings. It was a new chapter in the continuity of the media, conceived as an instrument of political management.
The meeting recalled in its documents and statements by high government officials that “news policy is decided by the Communist Party” defined by the Constitution as the highest leading force of society and the state. It also reaffirmed the ideological natures of the press and underlined “the pride of revolutionary Cuban journalists in dedicating their lives to struggling in a unique historic opportunity with Fidel and Raúl Castro.”
The meeting opened with the analysis in the plenary of a letter of suggestions from Fidel Castro. It continued with a documentary called “Fidel Among Us” and the introduction of the book “Fidel Journalist.” It concluded with the awarding of the José Martí National Journalism Prize to the ailing ex-president.
The delegates also proposed making Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez an honorary member of the UPEC and nominated him for the National Journalism Prize.
In May, the television program “Roundtable,” the government’s media platform, and the daily Granma accused opposition leaders Martha Beatriz Roque, Vladimiro Roca and Jorge Luis García Pérez (Antúnez), among others, of receiving money from Cuban exiles in Miami through U.S. diplomats.
For several days the program showed photographs, private e-mail messages and recording of telephone calls that, according to Col. Adalberto Barreiro of the state security agency, were part of a criminal investigation. But the alleged evidence was handled before the cameras by journalists Randy Alonso, Lázaro Barredo and Reynaldo Taladrid, as well as Manuel Hevia, a retired colonel of the Interior Ministry and diplomat Josefina Vidal.
The dissidents who were accused sued the journalists Alonso, Barredo (both legislators) and Taladrid, colonels Barreiro and Hevia and the official Vidal, arguing that although the law currently permits seizing and opening mail and other surveillance in some cases, it also requires keeping “secret matters not related to the matter that caused the investigation.”
The Interior Ministry (MININT) claims the power to intercept citizens’ postal and e-mail correspondence, to film their movements and tap telephone calls without court authorization.
On August 26, the plaintiffs reported that the general prosecutor’s office had dismissed their suit despite the fact that flagrant violations of the Constitution and Penal Code had been committed.
The government has increased control over visas for foreign correspondents who want to travel to the island for temporary projects. Several European and Latin American reporters have not received answers to their requests for visas to practice journalism in Cuba. Both Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl have recently criticized the foreign press and their reports on life in Cuba.
On September 29, Cuba reported that the United States had denied visas to two correspondents of the state news agency Prensa Latina, Ilsa Rodríguez Santana and Tomás Granados Jiménez, who planned to return to their work at the United Nations. Cuban authorities appealed the decision. Two days later, the two journalists were awarded visas by the US Department of State, in compliance with the agreement between the US Administration and the United Nations.