CUBA Report to the Midyear Meeting Caracas, Venezuela March 28 - 30, 2008 For the first time in 49 years, the country experienced an official change of leadership. On February 19, Fidel Castro announced his resignation as president of the Council of State and commander in chief for reasons of health. This opened the way for the election of his brother, Raúl Castro on February 24. The succession has raised expectations for change. In journalism, however, the same situation of stagnation, control of information, repression of the independent press and indifference to the complaints of jailed journalists continues. In truth, there has been no substantial change since Fidel Castro left power 20 months ago. Although he suggested that he would stay on only as a modest soldier of ideas, the first resolution of the new Council of State was that he would be consulted on all of the countrys strategic decisions. Since March 29, 2007, when he began publishing articles under the headline Reflections, Fidel Castro has written 70 essays, focusing on politics, international relations and the confrontation with the United States. Raúl Castro is attempting to put forward some measures in the media sector, with careful steps in the participation by the official press in criticism and the solution of economic and social problems, the opening of spaces for letters from readers, and the liberalization of sales of home appliances and computers. In an effort to legitimize his government on the world stage, Raúl Castro has signed various human rights accords that Cuba had refused to honor in the past. He has permitted a greater presence of the Catholic Church in the government media, including Masses, proclamations and interviews. The number of journalists in custody is 25 after the release for humanitarian reasons of Alejandro González Raga, who was sentenced to 14 years, and José Gabriel Ramón Castillo, serving a 20-year term. Both journalists, members of the Group of 75, were on a list of sick prisoners. They left prison on February 17 and headed to exile in Spain along with two prisoners of conscience in the same case. Another 12 jailed journalists whose health has worsened in recent months continue in custody without being granted humanitarian special release in consideration of their severe illnesses, and in many cases, their advanced age. Their treatment and conditions of their custody are inhumane, with insufficient food and hygiene, abuse of inmates who demand basic rights and limited medical care. The most critical cases are the following: *Normando Hernández, sentenced to 25 years, is in the prison ward of Carlos J. Finlay Military Hospital in Havana. He has intestinal malabsorption syndrome, vesicular polyps and high blood pressure. He is awaiting an operation to remove the polyps, but he is very weak. The Cuban government has refused to consider allowing him to leave on a humanitarian visa granted by the government of Costa Rica in April of 2007. In addition he has had a U.S. visa to emigrate with his wife since 2001. *Dr. 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. *Dr. 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. His wife and two young daughters died last month in an automobile accident in the province of Sancti Spíritus. *One of the imprisoned journalists is handicapped: Miguel Galván, an engineer, who was sentenced to 26 years. Of the six journalists of the Case of the 75 who received a humanitarian special release, four remain in Cuba with U.S refugee visas. They were not able to get government authorization to leave the country permanently. As a reprisal for their professional work, the government has also prevented other journalists who recently received visas from emigrating. The most recent case is that of journalist Luis Esteban Espinosa Echemendía of the agency called Youth Without Censorship (Jovenes Sin Censura). He was told on November 7 that he would not be allowed to leave the country although he has had a residence visa from Switzerland since August. Months earlier he was warned by an official of the State Security agency that if he did not cooperate with authorities he would not be allowed to emigrate legally. Abel Escobar Ramírez of Cubanet agency and Luis Guerra Juvier of Nueva Prensa Cubana are in a similar situation. Both have been approved to emigrate by the U.S. refugee program. Escobar Ramírez was told last September that his wife and daughters had been authorized to emigrate, but he was not. Juvier has been in a legal limbo for more than a year along with his wife, since the authorities withdrew their permission to leave without explanation. The work of about 60 independent journalists who are still active is met with daily repression. The movement is experiencing a period of revival after the devastating blow of the so-called Black Spring of 2003. Not only were 28 journalists in the movements leadership arrested, but agencies and projects that had been functioning since the mid-1990s were dismantled. Last December a media group called Consenso was formed in Havana as a news and cultural project with about 30 journalists. In addition to the magazine of the same name, which has an online version, the group publishes a weekly that prints about a hundred copies for sale In February, the team of intellectuals who had left the magazine Vitral because of disagreements with the Pinar del Río diocese started a new online publication called Convivencia that is defined as a space for freedom of expression and defense of civil rights. One contributor, Néstor Pérez González, a second-year law student, was expelled from the University of Pinar del Río for writing a report for the first edition of Convivencia. In the last six months 52 acts of coercion against the practice of news gathering have been reported in the capital and the interior of the country. Among them are fines, searches, confiscation of money and personal belongings, preventive detention, restriction of movements, raids on houses, death threats, sieges by government mobs with the knowledge and consent of the police and reprisals against the journalists relatives. Part of the governments strategy is to hinder the work and professional development of journalists. On October 21, reporter Francisco Blanco Sanabria was prevented from observing the vote count following the municipal elections in Cruces, Cienfuegos province. The Cuban Constitution gives people the right to witness the counting of votes, but a state security officer told Blanco Sanabria to leave and warned him not to write about the incident. Earlier this month, six journalists were prevented from entering the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to participate in a training seminar via teleconference, which was being sponsored by Florida International University in Miami. The government has continued its crackdown on unauthorized satellite television hookups, and has further tightened restrictions on Internet connections. For example, anti-establishment blogs in Cuba have been blocked. Police have continued to target parabolic antennas and cable television hookups in raids aimed at dismantling neighborhood distribution networks, seizing equipment, and fining violators. Patrol cars, police officers, and technicians have been deployed in force to cut off illegal television and Internet connections, with the support of leaders of the local neighborhood watch committees. In an effort to circumvent the watchful eye of the government and gain access to alternative sources of news and entertainment that are unavailable through the government-controlled media, television programs from Miami are increasingly being copied onto DVDs and distributed throughout the country. DVD players have been allowed to enter the country freely since last year, and as a result many more people are using them. As of April 1, the government will also allow the sale of DVD players, VCRs, television sets, and computers which thus far have been inaccessible to the Cuban people in government stores, albeit only with convertible currency. But computer sales wont mean the government will relax its restrictions on Internet access. The government continues to control the Internet as a strategic area of interest that should be used to serve social purposes. Internet access is restricted to central government agencies, educational and cultural institutions, and foreigners who pay for the service in convertible currency. An extremely slow Internet connection costs US$6 to US$10 per hour at the few Internet cafes and hotels in Havana where it is available. Cuba maintains that because U.S. policy prevents it from connecting to the international underwater cable, it can only access the Internet by satellite, entailing a cost of more than $4 million a year. According to government statistics, Cuba has 190,000 Internet users, a figure representing those who enjoy access through government entities. Only 1.7% of the population has Internet access, one of the lowest rates in the world. The government claims that 40% of all Cubans between ages 6 and 60 used a computer last year, which stands in sharp contrast with the countrys low levels of Internet access. Increased restrictions on Internet access from workplaces and schools led to the blockage of Web sites such as Yahoo, MSN, and Hotmail in 2007. People seeking to use e-mail and access news sources must now rely on the government site www.enet.cu, where surfing can be more easily monitored and restricted, even for users from the government-controlled media. Officials from the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications (MIC) led by Ramiro Valdés Menéndez, a longtime Cuban leader and former head of the political police (Ministry of the Interior) are continuing their quest to restrict Internet access. They are establishing an intranet that only provides access to Cuban publications and Web sites, as well as foreign-based sites supportive of the Cuban government. Telecommunications experts are also working to create a grand national educational intranet and a Cuban encyclopedia, aimed at compensating for the lack of books and building a pool of informational and educational resources. This will presumably lead to a dictionary of sorts containing the governments version of Cuban history, which will then be expanded to cover the ALBA countries and subsequently the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean. Despite all these obstacles, many people continue to use the Internet from their homes through government agencies access codes, and independent blogs are on the rise, especially among youth. These activities are punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Many Cubans choose to connect to the Internet from diplomatic facilities in Havana. The U.S. Interests Section has equipped a room with computers for independent journalists, dissident activists, university students, and the general public. Since mid-2007, the popularity of Cuban independent blogs has been capturing the attention of major publications, television networks, and Web sites throughout the world. Bloggers access the Internet by paying for it at Internet cafes or by using access codes purchased on the black market, and their blogs are hosted on foreign-based sites such as blogspot.com. The government has wasted little time stepping in. Generación Y, the most widely read Cuban blog, reported on March 24 that government authorities blocked access to the site from Cuba, making it impossible for the blogger to update it. Similar restrictions have been placed on other fledgling Cuban blogs, such as Potro Salvaje (Wild Colt). Apparently a filter is used to slow down the site and prevent Cuban Internet users from accessing the comments. Starting in early March, the official government newspaper Granma was expanded from 8 to 16 pages to provide greater coverage of domestic issues. It also reinstated the section for letters from readers, who have begun to air their complaints about the pressing problems of daily life, such as the dual currency system and the lack of goods in Cuba. Under Raúl Castro, the press has begun to take on issues previously considered taboo, such as unemployment among young people, the farming crisis, the informal economy, and social indiscipline. The National Statistics Office has begun posting the results of studies on these issues on its Web site. The foreign press continues to work under the strict supervision and critical eye of the government and government-controlled media, such as the so-called Roundtable and the national television network. Many foreign correspondents have been subjected to delays and denials in their efforts to obtain press credentials to travel to Cuba. On February 29, a newly retired Fidel Castro railed in one of his reflections against Fernando Ravsberg, a BBC correspondent in Havana, accusing him of hurling crude insults and making false statements about the recent succession of power in Cuba.