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    After the Black Spring, Cuba’s new repression

    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
    Karen Phillips
    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
    as well."

    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
    dropped out.

    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
    government smears.

    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
    mobile phones.

    "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
    party officials.

    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
    eye inflammation.

    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
    publicly respond.

    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.

    CPJ's Recommendations
    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
    expression standards.

    • 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


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