After the Black Spring, Cuba's new repression
When the last of 29 journalists jailed in a notorious 2003 crackdown was
finally freed this year, it signaled to many the end of a dark era. But
Cuban authorities are still persecuting independent journalists through
arbitrary arrests, beatings, and intimidation. A CPJ special report by
Published July 6, 2011
Juan González Febles, director of the independent news website Primavera
Digital, was running an errand last spring when he came upon a news
story: Police were climbing onto his neighbors' roofs in Havana to
remove satellite television dishes that the government considers illegal
because they pick up uncensored stations from abroad.
When Febles started taking pictures with his cell phone, officers
quickly arrested him and took him to a neighborhood police station,
where he was held for seven hours and made to erase all of his photos of
the dish seizures, a highly unpopular police activity. Febles, a former
librarian who took up independent journalism in 1998 and now runs the
overseas-hosted website, told CPJ that he has become accustomed to
detentions, which number in the dozens over the years, but that he is
still bothered that his phone is tapped and that he's followed by
security agents in the streets. The agents sometimes stop him, Febles
said, and relay what they've heard in his private phone conversations.
Such is the state of repression in Cuba today. As President Raúl
Castro's government seeks greater international engagement, it has freed
in the last year more than 20 imprisoned independent journalists and
numerous other political detainees who had been held since the notorious
Black Spring crackdown of 2003. Government officials talk of political
and economic reform, pointing to a plan to introduce high-speed Internet
service to the island this summer. But though the government has changed
tactics in suppressing independent news and opinion, it has not
abandoned repressive practices intended to stifle the free flow of
A CPJ investigation has found that the government persists in
aggressively persecuting critical journalists with methods that include
arbitrary arrests, short-term detentions, beatings, smear campaigns,
surveillance, and social sanctions. Today's tactics have yet to attract
widespread international attention because they are lower in profile
than the Black Spring crackdown, but the government's oppressive actions
are ongoing and significant.
CPJ examined government activities in March and April 2011, two months
with sensitive political milestones, and found that journalists were
targeted in more than 50 instances of repression. The majority of cases
involved arrests by state security agents or police officers, according
to CPJ research and documentation by the Cuban Commission on Human
Rights and National Reconciliation and Hablemos Press, a news agency
that focuses on human rights. Most frequently, these journalists were
detained on their way to cover a demonstration or political event and
were held in local police stations for hours or days. In at least 11
cases, the arrests were carried out with violence, CPJ research shows.
During this period, more than a dozen journalists endured house arrest,
preventing them from reporting on the Communist Party Congress in April
and the eighth anniversary in March of the Black Spring crackdown that
led to the imprisonment of dozens of journalists and dissidents.
Although no journalists have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms in
the last year, Cuban authorities in May ominously sentenced six
political dissidents to prison sentences of two to five years.
"Political repression in Cuba has undergone a metamorphosis," said
Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz, president of the Cuban Commission on Human
Rights and National Reconciliation. "Before, repression was based on
long prison sentences. Although the Cuban government still subjects
dissidents to jail terms, it has changed substantially from the Black
Spring, which was characterized by long-term sentences." More typical
now, he said, "are many arrests by the political police, lasting hours,
days, or weeks."
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the scheduled arrival of broadband Internet
is not expected to improve free expression or access to information.
Because the project will improve the island's relatively few existing
Internet connections—which are predominantly in government offices,
universities, and other officially approved locations—but not extend
connectivity to the general public, the government and its legion of
online bloggers will gain an even greater technological advantage over
critical voices. Independent journalists will be forced to continue to
use expensive Internet access at hotels, pirated connections bought on
the black market, or the politically-tinged access offered at foreign
"Official bloggers already benefit from free or low-cost Internet
connections," said Laritza Diversent, a lawyer and an independent
blogger. "Now, they will have the advantage of a high-speed connection
A vast, repressive legal structure
Magaly Norvis Suárez, a correspondent with Hablemos Press, has been
detained three times this year by police and state security agents. On
one occasion, she was slapped and kicked by police officers. Another
time, officers took her ID card and held it for several days,
essentially condemning her to house arrest because the law requires
individuals to carry identification in public. During one detention,
security agents told her that if she continued to practice journalism,
she could be imprisoned and lose custody of her children. Her
15-year-old daughter was harassed so relentlessly at school that she
Speaking with CPJ from Havana, Norvis Suárez said the psychological
impact is significant. "It's very difficult to work under the threat of
imprisonment," she said, "wondering if I'm imprisoned, what will happen
to my family, my husband, my house." Talk of political reform aside, the
laws that have allowed Cuba to imprison reporters remain very much in
place. They are written in Article 91 of the penal code, which imposes
lengthy prison sentences or death for those who act against "the
independence or the territorial integrity of the state," and Law 88 for
the Protection of Cuba's National Independence and Economy, which
imposes up to 20 years in prison for committing acts "aimed at
subverting the internal order of the nation and destroying its
political, economic, and social system."
This restrictive legal framework applies to the flow of news and
information itself. All authorized domestic news media are controlled by
the Communist Party, which recognizes freedom of the press only "in
accordance with the goals of the socialist society." Domestic news
outlets are state-owned and supervised by the Communist Party's
Department of Revolutionary Orientation. Online information is
restricted by an inter-ministry commission charged with "regulating the
information that comes from worldwide information webs." Article 19 of
Resolution 179 of 2008 of the Ministry of Communication and Computing
states that Internet service providers are obligated to "adopt the
necessary measures to impede access to sites with content that is
contrary to social interest, ethics, and good customs; as well as the
use of applications that affect the integrity and security of the state."
Independent journalists are forced to operate outside this official
framework. News websites such as Hablemos Press and Primavera Digital
are hosted overseas, with editors in Cuba uploading articles and
updating the sites at embassies or hotels. Other independent journalists
file stories, often by email, to news websites such as Cubanet and
Diario de Cuba that are based and edited overseas, often by Cuban
exiles. Still other independent journalists operate their own blogs,
which are hosted overseas and updated through embassies or costly hotel
Independent journalists pay another high price: They continue to be
subjected to "acts of repudiation," the term for rallies at which
government supporters gather outside the homes of people perceived as
being critical of the state. In extreme cases, journalists and political
dissidents are prevented from leaving their homes by chanting crowds of
government supporters, as was the case with a large demonstration held
on the eighth anniversary of the Black Spring crackdown. Héctor Maseda
Gutiérrez, a recently freed independent journalist and recipient of the
2008 CPJ International Press Freedom Award, and his wife, Laura Pollán,
a well-known human rights defender, told CPJ that more than 200
pro-government supporters had gathered outside their home. The couple
was hosting a gathering of newly freed political prisoners and members
of the Ladies in White, a group composed of the former prisoners'
spouses and other loved ones. The demonstrators stayed for two days,
playing the national anthem and revolutionary songs at high volume from
loud speakers and preventing anyone from leaving the gathering.
State television and, increasingly, the Internet have provided platforms
for smear campaigns against critical journalists and dissidents. The
government proudly announced in February that it had enlisted roughly
1,000 bloggers to denounce critical journalists; many of these
"official" bloggers are government employees, and all enjoy easy,
low-cost access to official Internet connections.
A slickly produced new television series, "Las Razones de Cuba," which
is also streamed online, presents independent journalists and dissidents
as enemies of the state. Using fuzzy footage of "suspicious" activities
(such as journalists entering a foreign embassy), a menacing soundtrack,
and interviews with official "experts," the program seeks to portray
critics as criminals bent on toppling the state. Journalist Dagoberto
Valdés, who directs the online newsmagazine Convivencia, and the
prominent blogger Yoani Sánchez have been singled out on the program.
A digital battle for free expression
Perhaps surprisingly in a country with few private Internet
connections—overall penetration is said to be only about 14 percent—the
struggle for free expression is being waged almost exclusively in
digital media. Despite the many hurdles to online access, Cuba has a
vibrant alternative blogosphere that consists of about 40 critical
journalistic blogs, all of which are hosted on overseas servers.
Blogging and increasingly Twitter offer platforms not only for
reflection, analysis, and reporting, but also for responding to
In response to "Las Razones de Cuba," the blogger Sánchez has produced
her own talk show, "Las Razones Ciudadanas" which is video-streamed
online. In each episode, civil society members discuss topics such as
independent journalism. Reinaldo Escobar, a blogger and the husband of
Sánchez, noted in one episode that the advent of mobile telephones had
transformed independent journalism on the island, allowing witnesses and
sources to communicate more easily with journalists and enabling
reporters to post content on Twitter. It was only in 2008 that the
government allowed consumer sales of personal electronic goods such as
"Twitter is the true protective shield for the independent press and
alternative bloggers in Cuba," said the exiled Cuban journalist Manuel
Vázquez Portal, himself a former political prisoner. Still, sending a
text or posting a Twitter message from a cell phone is costly, about
US$1 in a country where the average monthly income is equivalent to
US$15 to US$30. Government supporters have been quick to use Twitter as
well. For each Twitter message critical of state policy, there is an
onslaught of disparaging messages from pro-government users.
The government has been intent on keeping digital access tilted in its
favor. Private Internet connections are rare in Cuba. Resolution 180 of
2003 allows only those with Cuban convertible currency—a monetary form
generally used by foreigners—to obtain individual Internet access, which
must be approved by the government-owned Internet service provider
ETECSA. Government officials, intellectuals with government ties, and
some academics and doctors are among the relatively few Cubans with
authorized passwords to the state's Internet service.
Cubans without private connections can turn to state-run Internet cafés,
but users there can expect identity checks, heavy surveillance, and
restrictions on access to non-Cuban sites. The cost of uncensored
connections at hotels is about US$8 per hour; government-issued Internet
passwords can be purchased on black market sites, but they, too, are
expensive and are monitored for political content. Many journalists
interviewed by CPJ make daily or weekly trips to foreign embassies to
use free Internet connections, a practice that puts them under further
government scrutiny. Journalists working in the provinces, with few
hotels and no embassies, have an even harder time accessing the Web.
A US$70 million fiber-optic cable project, financed by the Venezuelan
government and laid this year by the French company Alcatel-Lucent, is
likely to tilt the field even more in the government's direction. The
project, scheduled to become operational this summer, will increase
Internet connection speeds exponentially but will have limited reach,
improving existing connections in government offices, universities, and
other official sites rather than increasing overall connectivity,
according to the official newspaper Granma. (The importance the Cuban
government attaches to restrictive connectivity was evident in the
December 2009 arrest of Alan Gross, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for
International Development who is serving a 15-year sentence on charges
of illegally helping Cubans set up Internet connections.)
"While the introduction of broadband is potentially a giant step forward
for connectivity, if it is implemented under the same rules of control,
suspicion, and institutional access it could very well be used as
another mechanism of control," said Ted Henken, a Cuba expert and
professor of black and Hispanic studies at City University of New York.
In April, Henken was detained by state security agents and told he could
not return to the island after he had met with independent Cuban bloggers.
On reform, talk but little action
The government has been unwilling to turn away from its longstanding
suppression of free speech—even as its leaders talk of economic and
political change. In fall 2010, President Castro announced plans to
reduce the state work force by more than half a million employees and
increase licenses for private enterprises. By March 2011, 171,000 new
private business licenses had been issued, press reports said, although
independent economists told CPJ that high fees and a shortage of raw
materials were stifling the effort. During the Communist Party Congress
in April, Castro officially replaced his brother Fidel as head of the
Communist Party in the first leadership change since the party's
founding in 1965. He also announced the introduction of term limits for
And in March, Cuba released the last of the 29 journalists imprisoned
during the Black Spring crackdown, when the government swept up dozens
of dissidents and handed them prison sentences of up to 27 years. The
release of detainees followed negotiations between the Cuban government
and the Catholic Church, with the help of Spanish diplomats. But freedom
has not been without a high cost: Most of the freed journalists and
their families were forced to leave their homeland for Spain, where
their resettlement has been filled with economic and professional
challenges. Three jailed journalists who refused to go into exile were
released on a form of parole that leaves them vulnerable to re-arrest.
Cuban journalists and human rights defenders expressed great skepticism
that economic changes on the island would be accompanied any time soon
by improvements in press freedom. The experiences of independent
reporter Dania Virgen García bolster that view.
"It seems like just about every two weeks they threaten me, they detain
me, or I have to spend the night in jail," said Virgen García, whose
reporting appears on her blog and on the Miami-based news website
Cubanet. "I know every police station in Havana." Virgen García has
faced arrest, smear campaigns, and physical assault for her reporting on
human rights abuses and substandard prison conditions. Recently she
awoke to a group of schoolchildren and teachers shouting pro-Castro
slogans and insults outside her home.
In April, while on her way to cover a meeting of ex-political prisoners
in Havana, Virgen García was arrested by state security agents and taken
to La Lisa police station, she told CPJ in a phone interview. During the
ordeal, she said, she was slapped on the face and manhandled by police
agents and doused with pepper spray by a prison guard. Virgen García was
released six hours later, but suffered extensive bruising and persistent
If the revolving jailhouse door of low-level repression seems more
benign than lengthy prison terms, the death in May of dissident Juan
Wilfredo Soto gives one pause. Soto, a member of the Central Opposition
Coalition and a former political prisoner, was arrested by two police
officers when he refused to leave a public park. After handcuffing Soto,
police beat him with batons, according to independent Cuban press
reports. Soto was released from custody but died days later from what
officials called "multiple organ failure due to pancreatitis," an
assertion met with disbelief by independent journalists and opposition
groups. International rights groups and governments called on Cuban
authorities to commission an independent inquiry, but Havana did not
Among those calling for an independent investigation was the European
Parliament, illustrating the sometimes-conflicting impulses on both
sides of the Atlantic. Although the European Union restricted diplomatic
relations and development cooperation with Cuba from 2003 to 2008, the
EU has since opened a political dialogue with Havana, and the European
Commission has provided the island with millions in aid. In 2010, the
Commission allocated 20 million euros (US$28.5 million) for food
security, environmental adaptation, and professional and academic
exchanges, according to the European External Action Service.
But Havana has yet to secure its most-sought goal with the EU: the
undoing of the Common Position, an EU-wide policy adopted in 1996 that
conditions full relations with the island on Havana's progress on human
rights and democracy. The repeal of the Common Position would normalize
diplomatic relations and solidify development cooperation for the long
term. In February, Cuba's minister of foreign affairs, Bruno Rodríguez,
met in Brussels with the EU's foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton,
for the fifth in a series of meetings begun in 2008 to explore the
future of EU-Cuba relations. Reiterating Havana's long-held position,
Rodríguez said relations should be normalized without "interference in
the internal affairs of states," international press reports said. The
intransigence implied by such a statement does not bode well for human
rights or press freedom.
"There are a lot of obstacles to normalizing relations at this time,"
said Susanne Gratius, an expert on EU-Latin American policy at FRIDE, a
Madrid-based foreign policy institute. As obstacles, she cited "the
authoritarian nature of the regime, human rights, and political rights,
where there has been no change despite the recent economic reforms." To
repeal the Common Position, Gratius noted, consensus would have to be
reached among the EU's 27 member states, which have divergent views on
Cuba. Sweden, Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic are particularly
opposed to abandoning the Common Position on human rights and political
"It's always the same story: You have some progress, and then you have a
step back," Gratius said of Cuba. "I think in the long run there is a
movement toward political opening, but you still have these reversals
that come with human rights abuses."
Karen Phillips, a freelance writer, has served as CPJ's journalist
assistance associate and, most recently, as the research associate for
CPJ's Americas program.
To the Cuban government
• End the use of detention, physical violence, surveillance, and smear
campaigns against independent journalists and bloggers.
• Repeal Article 91 of the penal code and Law 88 for the Protection of
Cuba's National Independence and Economy, provisions used by the
government to unjustly imprison independent journalists and political
• As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights, fully meet the obligation to allow journalists to work freely
and without fear of reprisal.
• Remove all legal barriers to individual Internet access, and allow
bloggers to host their sites on Cuban domains.
• With the arrival of high-speed Internet, extend access to the
population at large, including journalists and bloggers.
• Eliminate all conditions on the release of journalists detained during
the Black Spring. Vacate parole for the newly freed journalists who
remain in Cuba. Allow exiled journalists to return to the island without
To the International Community
To the U.N. Human Rights Council
• Hold the Cuban government accountable for its obligations under the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
• Urge Cuba to review trial processes and travel permit arrangements to
ensure they conform to the International Covenant on Civil and Political
• The U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression should request
authorization to assess the state of freedom of the press and freedom of
expression in Cuba and report findings and recommendations.
To the European Union
• Press the government to heed its call to grant freedom of information
and expression, including Internet access, to all Cubans.
• Urge Cuban authorities to lift conditions on newly released political
prisoners so they are indeed free and not vulnerable to re-imprisonment.
• In the evaluation of the Common Position on Cuba, predicate future
dialogue with Cuban authorities on substantial and specific
improvements. Those improvements should include the implementation of
international human rights covenants signed by Cuba, and the granting to
all Cubans of freedom of expression and access of information through
all media, including the Internet.
• Create a welcome environment throughout the European Union for Cuban
dissidents released from prison but forced into exile. Facilitate their
access to EU-funded social and training programs.
To the Organization of American States
• While Cuba has put aside rejoining the Organization of American
States, any future participation in the OAS must ensure that Cuba
conform to OAS principles, including the right to freedom of expression
and access to information. In the event Cuba joins the OAS, the
organization must ensure Cuba's compliance with international freedom of
• All OAS member states should promote a vigorous debate on human rights
violations in Cuba, including restrictions to Internet access.
• The OAS rapporteur on freedom of expression should request
authorization to assess the state of freedom of the press and freedom of
expression in Cuba and report findings and recommendations.
To the technology and blogging community:
• Continue to support Cuban bloggers by publicizing their work and
linking to their blogs.
• Companies that provide technology infrastructure to Cuba must ensure
their work product is not used to restrict freedom of expression.
Companies should follow the principles established by Global Network
Initiative, which seeks to ensure that technology companies uphold
international freedom of expression standards.
• Support social media applications that are popular in Cuba.
To the U.S. government:
• In accord with the April 2009 directive issued by President Barack
Obama, the administration and Congress should allow U.S. companies that
commit to Global Network Initiative principles to provide digital
support and infrastructure to Cubans. The 2009 directive was intended to
increase the free flow of information to the Cuban people and expand
communications links between the United States and Cuba.
• Allow U.S. companies to establish fiber-optic cable and satellite
telecommunications facilities linking the United States and Cuba.
• Encourage information technology and social media companies to enable
Internet chat services in Cuba, as it is now allowed under U.S.
• Ensure that U.S. policy is open and transparent in relation to its
support for dissidents.
July 6, 2011 9:00 AM ET