Cuba's Long Black Spring
Five years after the Castro government cracked down on the independent
more than 20 journalists remain behind bars for the "crime" of
free expression. The island nation has paid the price of international
The journalists and their families have paid in human misery.
March 18, 2008
In her kitchen overlooking Havana's crumbling skyline, Julia Núñez
Pacheco recalls the day five years ago when plainclothes state security
agents, pistols on hips, stormed into her home. They accused Adolfo
Fernández Saínz, her husband of three decades and an independent
journalist with the small news agency Patria, of committing acts aimed
at "subverting the internal order of the nation." Over the course of
eight long hours, agents ransacked the apartment, confiscating items
considered proof of Fernández Saínz's crimes: a typewriter, stacks of
the Communist Party daily Granma with Fidel Castro's remarks underlined,
and outlawed books such as George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984. As
Fernández Saínz was hauled away, Núñez Pacheco remembers one of the
agents turning to her and saying, "You know, we've been told you are
decent, quiet people. No fighting, no yelling. It's a shame you've
chosen this path."
Today, the 60-year-old Núñez Pacheco lives alone in this same Central
Havana apartment. A blown-up photograph of her husband and
autobiographies of Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X rest on a bookshelf.
Núñez Pacheco survives on family remittances from overseas, occasional
donations from international human rights groups, and her
government-issued ration card, which allots for basic provisions. Like
most prisoners' relatives, she is blacklisted and unable to work in any
official capacity, as the state is Cuba's sole employer. She sees her
husband infrequently because of the prison's distance from her home and
rules that allow family visits just once every two months. Fernández
Saínz, who is serving a 15-year sentence, is being held in central Ciego
de Ávila province, more than 400 miles (650 kilometers) from Havana.
During a three-day span in March 2003, as the world focused on the
U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Cuban government ordered the abrupt
arrest of 75 dissidents—29 of them independent journalists. All of the
reporters and editors were convicted in one-day trials and handed
sentences that could leave some in prison for the rest of their lives.
They were accused of acting against the "integrity and sovereignty of
the state" or of collaborating with foreign media for the purpose of
"destabilizing the country." Under Cuban law, that meant any journalist
who published abroad, particularly in the United States, had no defense.
Five years later, 20 of these journalists remain behind bars, along with
two others jailed since the crackdown. Like Fernández Saínz, most are
being held in prisons hundreds of miles from their homes under inhumane
conditions that have taken a toll on their health, according to an
investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists. At home, their
families, unable to work, scrape for basic necessities while being
regularly watched and often harassed by state authorities, CPJ found.
Cuba has dismissed international criticism, particularly from the United
States, as the work of political adversaries out to weaken its
government. But the imprisonment of these journalists in reprisal for
their independent reporting violates the most basic norms of
international law, including Article 19 of the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees everyone the right to
"seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds,
regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the
form of art, or through any other media of his choice." Cuba signed the
1966 accord on February 28 of this year, although it said it would place
unspecified interpretations and reservations on certain provisions.
These unjust imprisonments have also drawn protests from writers and
intellectuals worldwide, including several who are philosophical allies
of the Communist regime. "As someone who has always celebrated the
achievements of the Cuban Revolution, and particularly its health care
and educational systems, I am saddened and outraged each time that
freedom of expression is suppressed in Cuba," the Chilean novelist,
playwright, essayist, and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman told CPJ.
As much as Dorfman denounces U.S. policies toward Cuba—such as its
longstanding embargo, or "blockade," as it is called in some political
corners—he says the Cuban government is unjustified in continuing to
hold these journalists.
"Even while condemning the blockade against Cuba and the constant
attempts to overthrow its government, I stand firmly on the side of all
Cuban journalists, who have every right to inform and criticize without
fear of persecution," Dorfman said. "Liberty is indivisible."
Over the past five years, Cuba has freed a small number of journalists
and dissidents in exchange for international political concessions.
Spain, which has sought to reestablish influence with Cuba, has taken
the lead in negotiations that have led to the release of some prisoners.
Spain deserves credit for helping win the release of these journalists
and dissidents, but the Cuban government is obliged by international
human rights standards to release all of those who are unjustly jailed.
Despite the periodic releases, Cuba remains the world's second-leading
jailer of journalists, behind only China.
Fidel Castro, who stepped down as president in February after 49 years
in power, allowed his nation to pay a significant international price
for these unjust imprisonments—drawing rebukes from allies as well as
foes, and intensifying his country's isolation in the world. His
successor, brother Raúl Castro, could restore bridges to the
international community by releasing all of these prisoners. By doing
so, immediately and without condition, he could help usher in a new era
for Cuba's international relations.
Known in Cuba as the "Black Spring," the crackdown showed that Castro's
government was determined to crush grassroots dissent and tolerate
prolonged international protest. Journalists arrested in the crackdown
were key members of a movement that began in the mid-1990s, when Raúl
Rivero created the independent news agency Cuba Press and Rafael Solano
founded the counterpart Havana Press. The aim was to test freedom of
speech by filing to overseas outlets critical dispatches and analyses
about life on the tightly controlled island. The birth of these news
agencies coincided with the growth of the Internet, which enabled the
spread of their coverage.
Composed of opposition activists with a political bent and others who
took a more straightforward journalistic approach, the nascent
independent press contributed to foreign outlets such as CubaNet, a
U.S.-based online outlet, and Spanish-language publications and Internet
sites in Europe, such as the Spanish magazine Encuentro de la Cultura
Cubana. Journalists provided radio reports to U.S. government-funded
Radio Martí, which can be heard in Cuba, and to other Florida-based
stations. The media outlets paid small fees per story. The stories drew
not-so-small notice. Even before March 2003, the journalists were
subjected to harassment and sporadic short-term imprisonments.
"International attention on these journalists was reaching a fever
pitch," said Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the University of Miami's
Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. Cuban officials, he
said, feared they might lose their grip over the population by letting
people vent their frustrations. "The government decided enough was enough."
The crackdown was swift. Detentions began on March 18, 2003, and
continued for another two days. Police raided the homes of political
dissidents and journalists and accused them of being
"counterrevolutionaries" or "mercenaries" at the service of the United
States. During the hours-long raids, state security agents confiscated
tape recorders, cameras, typewriters, computers, and fax machines, as
well as books, newspapers, notepads, and research materials. The
journalists were handcuffed, hustled from their houses, and taken to the
headquarters of the State Security Department (known by its Spanish
acronym, DSE), home of Cuba's political police.
At the DSE, they were tossed into small cells with prisoners charged
with violent crimes. Their families waited outside for days, trying to
assess the situation. One-day trials against them were held behind
closed doors on April 3 and 4. In many cases, the families later said,
the journalists were unable to meet with their lawyers prior to the
hearings, and their defense was given only hours to prepare. On April 7,
local courts across Cuba announced their verdicts: The 29 journalists
had been handed sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years in prison.
Most have been transferred from prison to prison several times since
then, often as punishment for protesting the conditions of their
incarceration, CPJ research shows. Many are held far from their
families. Given Cuba's deteriorating transportation system and high
travel costs, such distances are extreme burdens. Families, who are
allowed short visits every four to eight weeks, bring the journalists
nutritious meals, hygiene supplies, medicine, and clean clothes—staples
not always provided by the prisons.
Cuban Minister of Foreign Relations Felipe Pérez Roque and Dagoberto
Rodríguez Barrera, head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington,
did not respond to letters, e-mails, and faxes sent by CPJ seeking
comment for this report. The office of President Raúl Castro did not
respond to faxes seeking comment.
All of the journalists are suffering from medical problems that have
emerged or worsened during their five-year incarcerations, according to
CPJ interviews with family members and friends. It is a litany of
individual misery and governmental inhumanity: José Luis García Paneque,
42, has suffered malnutrition, chronic pneumonia, and a kidney tumor.
José Ubaldo Izquierdo Hernández, 42, suffers from emphysema, a hernia,
and circulatory problems. Ricardo González Alfonso, 58, has
hypertension, arthritis, severe allergies, and a number of digestive and
circulatory diseases. Omar Ruiz Hernández, 60, who suffers from high
blood pressure and circulatory problems, recently learned that one of
his retinas has become detached. In these and other cases, CPJ research
shows, the government has failed to provide adequate medical care.
Prison conditions are appalling, according to these interviews, which
have been conducted by CPJ over several years and documented in detail
in annual editions of its book on international press conditions,
Attacks on the Press. Prison authorities not only harass the journalists
but also encourage other inmates to bully and assault the political
prisoners. The journalists are warehoused in massive barracks or
cubbyholed in undersized cells that lack ventilation. Drinking water is
contaminated with fecal matter, the food with worms. Protests against
these unsanitary conditions often land the journalists in isolation cells.
Their families struggle as well. Ileana Marrero Joa, 39, lives in a
rundown Havana suburb with her three children. Her husband, independent
journalist Omar Rodríguez Saludes, was imprisoned in 2003. Rodríguez
Saludes was considered one of Cuba's most dogged street journalists,
riding a bicycle throughout the city to catch press conferences and call
in stories to Nueva Prensa Cubana, a small Miami-based agency. Today,
Marrero Joa and her children visit the 42-year-old Rodríguez Saludes for
two hours once every two months, time spent eating a home-cooked meal
and updating Rodríguez on efforts to win release of the political prisoners.
Rodríguez Saludes' 19-year-old son, Osmany, is impressed by his father's
strength. "He says he's staying strong for us, so that when he's let out
he won't be a broken man," the younger Rodríguez told CPJ. But once
separated from his father, the lanky teen returns to his own bleak
reality. He, too, is blacklisted. Last November, after months of working
off the books hauling bread on and off trucks, he asked his boss if he
could become an official employee. After being given a series of evasive
answers, the younger Rodríguez was told his "criminal past" was a
problem. "Having a dad in prison is my crime," the son says, leafing
through a book of his father's street photography. "I might as well be
in there with him. It's four walls for all of us."
With the aftermath of the 2003 arrests consuming their lives, families
of the imprisoned dissidents have created a tight bond. Two weeks after
the crackdown, the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) group was formed,
gathering on Sundays at Havana's Santa Rita de Casia Catholic Church.
After Mass, they walk 10 blocks to a nearby park. In the spirit of
Argentina's Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who call attention to
relatives who disappeared during that country's military dictatorship,
the Cuban group dons white, with each woman carrying a pink gladiolus
flower and wearing a button with her loved one's picture that says
"prisoner of conscience." They demand the prisoners' release and, at
least, an improvement in conditions.
Pro-Castro groups attempt to thwart the Ladies in White. Hecklers call
the women counterrevolutionaries on the U.S. dole. Photographs taken by
a local journalist show a man striking Laura Pollán Toledo, a group
leader and wife of jailed journalist Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, in the
back of the head during a protest. "As long as we're out in public
demanding change, freedom, and human rights, we can expect acts of
aggression," says Pollán Toledo, who lost her job as a high school
Spanish teacher after the crackdown.
On a recent afternoon at her home in Central Havana, while a friend put
her long blond hair in curlers (she would visit her husband the next
day), Pollán Toledo pointed to a corner in her living room where she
said she recently found a hidden microphone. Pollán Toledo's home, a
popular gathering place for dissidents and relatives of jailed
dissidents, is under constant watch. Pollán Toledo realizes that
international recognition can provide a layer of security, but she adds
that "immunity from punishment by the Cuban government is not guaranteed."
Yet, for the most part, a small corps of independent journalists
continues to operate in Cuba in much the same manner as it did in 2003.
There are close to 100 independent reporters working in Cuba today, most
of them in Havana, although some provincial reporters are also active.
Independent journalists told CPJ they do most of their reporting in the
evenings, when they can be more inconspicuous. Though owning a computer
in Cuba is unlawful without government permission, some have antiquated
laptops; others use even older typewriters. Many just use a pad and a
pencil. They usually file their stories by public phones during
prearranged conversations with foreign media outlets. Others file by
fax, and in some rare cases, through e-mail. Although the vast majority
of their work goes to foreign Web sites or publications, Havana-based
reporters occasionally use the computer facilities of foreign embassies
to print an assortment of news pieces.
"On top of being harassed and not being part of the official press corps
in Cuba, independent journalists in Cuba go without some of the most
basic reporting tools, from having a cell phone or even a regular phone
to steady Internet access," says Hugo Landa, director of CubaNet. "I
think that's why a lot of independent journalists publish opinion pieces
and short, firsthand accounts of things they witness on the ground, more
than any type of investigative piece. What they are able to publish
reflects the realities they run up against. I always feel that they are
doing an admirable job, considering the difficult circumstances under
which they work."
They cover what Cuba's official press largely ignores. The Cuban
constitution allows the Communist Party to control the news and filter
it through its propaganda-minded Department of Revolutionary
Orientation. Press rights are granted only "in accordance with the goals
of the socialist society."
The independent press coverage reflects basic ideas and information
protected under international agreements, including the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights. CPJ reviewed 40 articles written from January to March
2003 by journalists who were imprisoned during the crackdown, and
several dozen articles written by independent journalists, including
former political prisoners, between 2006 and 2007. All were published on
foreign news Web sites and media outlets in the United States and Spain.
Coverage largely focused on social issues, including food shortages,
empty pharmacy shelves, housing problems, unemployment, and poorly
equipped schools. Reporters also covered Cuba's dissident community,
from the opening of independent home libraries and trade union movements
to the harassment of human rights activists. They wrote about police
harassment and human rights violations, ranging from the arrest of
street vendors to violence against political prisoners. Criticism of the
government and its leaders—mainly Fidel Castro—was common but not
inflammatory. For example, in a January 2003 story on lengthy lines at a
train station, now-imprisoned reporter José Ubaldo Izquierdo Hernández
wrote: "How long will we have to wait to wake up from this nightmare
that has lasted now 44 years?"
Five years after the crackdown, despite international pressure, Cuba has
freed only nine imprisoned journalists. Among the released: Jorge
Olivera Castillo, a 46-year-old who served his country as a soldier in
Angola and as an editor at the state-run television station Instituto
Cubano de Radio y Televisión.
In December 2004, Olivera Castillo was freed from a Guantánamo prison on
medical parole after suffering from colon problems. Yet his freedom is
conditional. He and his family have U.S.-issued visas, but Cuba denies
them permission to exit. In fact, he cannot leave Havana and is barred
from attending any public gatherings. His phone is tapped, his mail
searched, and, without warning, state security agents pay him visits.
They ask about his work and his family, and offer subtle reminders that
his freedom is tenuous.
Despite these risks, Olivera Castillo continues to write. Sitting at his
kitchen table in his cramped apartment in Old Havana, he taps away at a
donated Dell laptop. Along with short stories, he writes political
analysis for CubaNet. "There was a time when I believed in the
revolution, but I then realized that as hard as I worked, I never had
savings. I soon realized that a better life for myself and my family was
not possible," said Olivera Castillo, who once tried to leave Cuba on a
makeshift raft bound for Florida. He eventually began working with
independent news agencies such as Havana Press.
Olivera Castillo's professional experience is rare among the independent
press. Many are teachers, physicians, office workers, and engineers
turned writers. Others hail from the dissident movement, either
activists in independent unions or members of opposition political parties.
Contributing to mainstream foreign news outlets such as The Miami Herald
and Spain's El País are former high-ranking government officials. One of
them, economist Oscar Manuel Espinosa Chepe, was part of an elite group
of advisors to Fidel Castro in the 1960s and helped craft Cuba's
economic cooperation with Eastern Europe. Influenced by glasnost and
perestroika in the 1980s, Espinosa Chepe began touting more liberal
economic polices, such as loosening limits on land or business
ownership. Steadily demoted as Castro rejected such reforms, he was
eventually assigned work as a clerk at a small bank near his home.
Espinosa Chepe's wife, Miriam Leiva, remained a member of the Communist
Party and held a high-level post in the Ministry of Foreign Relations.
When Espinosa Chepe decided to quit his clerking job and write for
foreign outlets, Leiva faced pressure at work to either denounce him as
a counterrevolutionary or lose her job. "They thought they were giving
me a choice between remaining a somebody or becoming a nobody," said
Leiva, 60. Refusing to cooperate, Leiva was fired and the couple began
contributing full-time to foreign media from their tiny Havana
apartment. Leiva wrote about social ills such as prostitution and the
disparities between consumer goods available to tourists and those for
citizens. Espinosa Chepe produced sharp economic analyses that were
circulated underground, and he hosted a weekly Radio Martí show called
"Charlando con Chepe" (Chatting with Chepe). He spoke about increasing
food imports, rising inflation, and falling investment. "I didn't get a
cent from Radio Martí," says Espinosa Chepe, 67. "My main concern was
getting the word out. We'd always find a way to get by."
That has been extraordinarily difficult at times. Espinosa Chepe was
swept up in the 2003 crackdown and languished in prison for more than a
year. During his imprisonment, Leiva helped organize relatives of
imprisoned journalists to protest, and she published commentaries in
U.S. and European newspapers. By the time Espinosa Chepe was freed on
medical parole in November 2004, he had lost more than 20 pounds and was
suffering from gastrointestinal bleeding, liver problems, and high blood
Today, Leiva and Espinosa Chepe continue to work from a tiny apartment
stuffed with books, many banned by the government. When asked if they
fear another crackdown, Leiva said, "I refuse to be quiet and lose my
dignity." Espinosa Chepe, relaxing in a rocking chair after a
home-cooked meal, nods in agreement. "We go on normally with our
abnormal lives," he says.
Remarkably, several imprisoned reporters have continued working behind
bars. In prison, Olivera Castillo managed to pass outsiders 37 of his
poems, which were eventually published in Spain. Journalists such as
Maseda Gutiérrez, González Alfonso, and Normando Hernández González have
smuggled out entire memoirs, a few sheets of paper at a time. Others
have reported on human rights violations in Cuban prisons. In a recent
essay published on CubaNet, for instance, Fernández Saínz denounced the
treatment of an imprisoned human rights activist.
Since 2003, Cuba has used imprisoned journalists and dissidents as
political leverage, sporadically releasing a few in exchange for
international concessions. "Cuba has effectively used political
prisoners as an element of political negotiation, as bargaining chips,"
says Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz, president of the Cuban Commission for
Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a domestic human rights group
that operates despite being officially banned by the government.
Since taking office in April 2004, the left-leaning government of
Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has acted as a mediator
between the European Union and the Castro government. Relations between
Brussels and Havana—already strained by the EU's 1996 Common Position on
Cuba, which demanded improvement in human rights and political liberties
in the island—were further damaged after the 2003 crackdown and ensuing
EU diplomatic sanctions.
Spain's strategy of engagement with the Cuban government, which differs
from U.S. policies aimed at isolating Cuba through economic sanctions
and travel restrictions, has gained support from EU members such as
Britain while meeting opposition from northern and eastern members led
by the Czech Republic. Nonetheless, in January 2005, the European
Parliament voted to lift the 2003 diplomatic sanctions after the Cuban
government transferred more than a dozen ailing dissidents from jail
cells to prison hospitals and granted medical paroles to a number of
others, including the writers Rivero and Manuel Vázquez Portal.
This February—just months after Spain announced the resumption of some
cooperation programs between the two countries—Cuba freed four more
prisoners, including independent journalists José Gabriel Ramón Castillo
and Alejandro González Raga. Prominent dissident Oswaldo Payá, leader of
the Christian Liberation Movement, says the dialogue between the two
governments has been important, "but it can also be used as a smoke
screen to hide the fact that there has been no real progress on human
These are not ordinary times in Cuba, however, as Payá and others point
out. The ailing 81-year-old Fidel Castro, who handed over day-to-day
power to brother Raúl in July 2006, announced on February 19 that he was
officially resigning as president, ending nearly a half century of rule.
The National Assembly named Raúl Castro, 76, as president five days later.
With Raúl Castro in charge, there have been hints at economic,
agricultural, and administrative reforms. His government's decision to
sign the four-decade-old International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights, while a potentially encouraging move, was clouded by the vague
caveats it immediately placed on the document.
"Signing this agreement is a positive thing," Payá says, "but in order
for the decision to be coherent, the government must release the
political prisoners who are jailed for peacefully practicing and
promoting these rights."
Some change is coming from the ground up, as a new generation of
tech-savvy bloggers emerges. On a recent afternoon, Yoani Sánchez, a
slim 32-year-old wearing baggy surfer shorts and a T-shirt, sat at a
small, wooden table in her living room and sipped a strong Cuban
espresso. Here is where she writes entries for her blog Generación Y,
created last April. The blog chronicles her everyday observations of
Cuba, from the abundance of José Martí statues to bored youth and the
workings of Cuba's black market. In a January 8 entry, Sánchez writes
how she cannot "conceive a day without immersing myself in the black
market in order to buy eggs, cooking oil or tomato paste."
She heads to one of Havana's Internet cafés once a week, a practice that
is extremely expensive. (One hour at an Internet café in Havana
typically costs 160 pesos [US$6], about one-third an average monthly
salary on the island.) But Sánchez works fast, quickly uploading her
files from a flash memory drive and downloading readers' comments and
e-mail. For cash, Sánchez approaches tourists and offers to give them
walking tours of the city. "My friends think I'm taking a huge risk with
my blog," says Sánchez, who posts her real name and a photo of herself
on her blog. "But I think it's my way of pushing back against the
system, if only a little bit."
Other newcomers include Sin EVAsion, a blog run by the pseudonymous Eva
González, who describes herself as part of the "generation that came of
age in 1980," when Fidel Castro gave permission to any person who wanted
to leave Cuba to do so from the port of Mariel, which he declared
"open." As a result, some 125,000 Cuban refugees left the island during
what became known as the Mariel boat lift. It's a generation, she says,
that struggles "between disillusion and hope." Another new blog is
Retazos, run by the colorfully pen-named El Guajiro Azul, who lives in
Cuba "while he has no other option." Blog entries range from essays on
Cuban censorship to the manual work that elderly Cubans turn to in order
to supplement their meager pensions.
Most reader comments thank the bloggers for publishing critical views.
Others take the bloggers to task. The popularity of Sánchez's blog—she
said thousands have visited—has generated a wave of pro-regime comments
from readers who have added pro-government links and slogans such as
"Viva Cuba! Viva Fidel!" It is, in its own limited way, a forum for
Five years after the crackdown, the independent press movement is far
from being deterred. On a recent weekday morning, independent reporter
Olivera Castillo makes his way along one of Havana's main avenues to a
pay phone, where he'll call a contact for a story he's reporting. On the
sidewalks, elderly men play dominoes as a line of people snakes down the
block awaiting a crowded bus. Olivera Castillo keeps walking. He has
work to do, although he knows that what he writes today could be the
tipping point for his arrest and return to prison. But he pays no mind.
"I refuse," he says, "to live in fear for expressing my ideas."
Carlos Lauría is CPJ's senior program coordinator for the Americas.
María Salazar is the program's research associate. Monica Campbell is a
freelance journalist based in Mexico City.