Cuba

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The Cuban government's release from prison of about 20 independent journalists since early July is indeed good news. But at least seven others remain in jail, almost all the 20 had to agree to go into exile abroad and the communist-run government continues to deny true freedom of expression to its 11.2 million people. The release of the 20 was part of an agreement between the Raúl Castro government, Cuba's Catholic church and the Spanish government to free the last 52 dissidents still in jail from a 2003 roundup that sent 75 opposition voices to prison. About 40 of the 52 have been released -- and sent into exile abroad. The rest, as well as others considered to be political prisoners -- are expected to be freed soon. Catholic church publications are growing and the Communist Party's Granma newspaper is publishing an unusually frank, if limited, series of opinions on economic reforms in its letters to the editors section. Independent journalists and bloggers are expanding despite strong government pressures that range from short-term detentions to filters that block access to critical Web sites. Foreign correspondents are still closely monitored by the government, and a U.S. citizen remains jailed in Havana after delivering a satellite telephone to Cuban Jewish groups. And the government media -- newspapers, TV and radio stations and Web sites -- provide only the official version of events on the island and abroad. As it has done for much of the last half century, the Cuban government today tightly controls the island's mass media and requires them to toe the official line on domestic and foreign policy. But amid the persistent government control of Cuban newspapers, television and radio stations, a slight change has occurred in one newspaper and perhaps one television station. While neither change can be labeled freedom of the press, the changes suggest a limited loosening -- albeit with official blessing of the government's views on the role of the news media. Drawing the most attention were the letters to the editor appearing in the Communist Party's normally staid and colorless Granma newspaper, read by hundreds of thousands of people, both regular citizens and the governing elite. At first, most of the letters focused on minor issues such as gripes against neighbors' loud music and unruly pets or a shortage of sanitary napkins. More recently, however, the letters turned into a veritable debate on the wisdom of opening up Cuba's government-run economy by “privatizing'' 30,000 state-owned retail shops such as bakeries and cafeterias. Under the plan, employees would be allowed to operate the outlets through cooperatives. A television station in the eastern city of Santiago, for example, broadcast a video taken during a Communist Party leader's visit to a bakery, showing cockroaches roaming over tables and equipment. But more sensitive issues like the deaths of more than 20 patients at the Havana Psychiatric Hospital during a cold snap in January was not covered further even after the government said it would punish those responsible for negligent care. The government acknowledged the deaths only after foreign media reported them. The Government-controlled media also have ignored a major corruption scandal involving Civil Aviation chief Gen. Rogelio Acevedo and the national airline Cubana de Aviación, although some foreign correspondents in Cuba reported on the case in April. While about 20 imprisoned independent journalists were freed in recent months, at least seven are still in prison, including one who has been held since 1998. The number of brief detentions of independent journalists by government agents has increased, perhaps a new method of repression instead of imprisoning them for several years. Iván García, a Cuban who writes for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, was summoned to the Ministry of the Interior where he was interrogated and formally warned after publishing an article criticizing the Cuban armed forces for engaging in profit-making businesses. Human rights activists in Havana, who monitor the activities of independent journalists, said that despite the continued harassment of writers the Cuban government has failed to destroy the movement. Elizardo Sánchez Santacruz, a Havana human rights advocate, said there are more independent journalists now working in the island than at the height of the harsh crackdown in 2003, when 75 peaceful dissidents and independent journalists were imprisoned. Prominent independent journalist Guillermo Farías, who ended a 135-day hunger strike after the Cuban government agreed to free the 52 political prisoners, was awarded the prestigious Sakharov prize and more than $60,000 by the European Parliament. Also freed was Darsi Ferrer, who was adopted February 26 as the 55th prisoner of conscience in Cuba by Amnesty International. Ferrer, a dissident writer and director of the Juan Bruno Zayas Health and Human Rights Center in Havana, had been jailed without charges since July 2009. The four independent journalists still in prison since the 2003 crackdown are Iván Hernández Carrillo, Héctor Maceda, Pedro Arguelles and Félix Navarro. Maceda is the husband of Laura Pollán, a leader of the Ladies in White group. The three other jailed independent journalists are Santiago Du Bouchet, a director of the HavanaPress agency who has been held since June 2009; Ernesto Borges, a former military officer jailed in 1998; and Raymundo Perdigón Brito, detained since 2006. Independent journalists, now estimated at several hundred, mainly focus on human rights violations by government agents against dissidents and living conditions on the island, such as power and food shortages or the lack of adequate transport. Their work generally appears on foreign Web sites dedicated to supporting the dissident movement on the island. Most independent journalists are not school-trained professionals -- though a few are college graduates in other disciplines. Cuba's blogosphere continues to expand and become more technologically adept and attractive to readers, despite government attempts to block Web sites that publish opposition views. About 30 to 50 blogs are regularly updated by Cubans who consider themselves “alternative bloggers” rather than “dissidents” yet are strongly critical of the government Some of their best posts appeared this summer in an attractively designed e-magazine named Voces, distributed by e-mails, flash drives, CDs and Bluetooth connections. The group's best-known blogger, Yoani Sánchez, is giving lessons to other Cubans on how to start and manage blogs, as well as how to use the full capabilities of cellular phones to distribute posts and other reports. Sánchez also continued to use her posts and Tweets to publicize dissident activities, and sent out the first photo of Farías taking his first sip of water after he suspended his hunger strike. The audience inside Cuba for the “alternative” bloggers appears to remain relatively small, although there's no way to measure the impact when their posts are passed around on portable memory devices and even direct computer-to-computer links. A second group of about 20 Cubans writing for the blog Havana Times has drawn increasing attention with outspoken and diverse columns, usually from a leftist perspective but clearly not fully aligned with the government. But a similar group of self-described “young socialists” who posted under the name Bloggers Cuba disappeared this year amid reports that government officials had disapproved of their unorthodox comments. About 100 other blogs are written by strong government supporters, most often employees of the state media. The government continues to try to block the Web sites of about 50 of its cyber-opponents, yet computer-savy Cubans still find ways around the filters by using proxy sites and portable memory devices. The job of “blogger” was not among the 178 categories of “self-employment” to be licensed by the government in an effort this fall to jump-start the ailing Cuban economy. Access to the Internet remains expensive, difficult and slow, and Cuba is in last place among all Latin American nations in terms of Internet connectivity. The government claims that about 13 percent of Cubans have access to the Internet. Some independent experts say the true figure is much lower because the government counts everyone on an internal computer network known as the Intranet. Others say it is higher because of the many of Cubans who have black market access to the Web. A fiberoptic cable from Cuba to Venezuela reportedly to be built next year will greatly expand Cuba's broadband capabilities … the main reason given by the government for the high costs and low availability. But Cuban officials already have made it clear that the expanded broadband will be made available first for government and social needs, and perhaps only later for individuals. Also expanding have been Catholic church publications, apparently in part the result of the improved relations between the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, and Cuban ruler Raúl Castro. About 46 bulletins and magazines, 12 Web sites and seven “electronic bulletins,'' plus dozens of flyers issued by parishes and lay groups now reach more than 250,000 people, according to a report in October by the Havana bureau of the Inter Press Service. The two largest magazines are Palabra Nueva -- New Word -- published by the Havana archdiocese, and Espacio Laical -- Lay Space -- published by the Council of Lay Persons, also based in the Cuban capital. Some of the articles in church publications have criticized some Cuban government policies, respectfully and always using church language. But Cubans involved in some of the publications acknowledge that they and their editors measure their words to avoid the government's wrath. One of the most outspoken church outlets has been Convivencia -- Living Together -- a Web page published by Dagoberto Valdés Hernández, former director of the magazine Vitral of the archdiocese in western Pinar del Rio Province. An editorial in August said Cuba “is living one of the most tense moments of its history, without an economy, without a viable political project from those who govern it, and with a society every day more dispirited.” Vitral closed in 2007 for what archdiocese officials described as a lack of resources, although government officials and the Granma newspaper had long been highly critical of Valdés and the magazine. The government-run mass media continues to pay relatively little attention to church issues, such as the ongoing string of events to mark the 400th anniversary of the appearance in Cuba of a statue of Our Lady of Charity in 1612. The Cuban government continues to exert strong and usually effective pressures on foreign correspondents to limit their reporting on topics that it considers to be sensitive. Most of the controls are wielded by the government's International Press Center (IPC), which issues the press accreditations required by resident and visiting correspondents, transmits their requests for interviews with government officials and arranges their purchase of key imported goods such as air conditioners. Sanctions range from IPC rebukes over the phone for a too-critical story, to being summoned to the center for a personal complaint, to being attacked in the government media. The IPC threatened to not renew the accreditation of one foreign correspondent in the past six months, but as in previous such cases it has not followed through on the warning. Outright expulsion of foreign correspondents has become more rare in the past three to four years. IPC officials also were reported to have told at least one foreign news bureau in Havana that it could no longer have more than one foreign correspondent, meaning the other staffers would have to be Cuban citizens -- presumed to be more susceptible to government pressures. The Foreign Ministry also appeared to have cut back on the number of visas it issues to visiting correspondents, especially those from U.S. news media. One Ministry official, speaking privately, said the government did not want foreign reporters asking too many questions of Cubans on the street at a potentially risky time. After the government announced that 500,000 public employees would be laid off and “self-employment'” would be expanded significantly, none of the staff stories in major U.S. newspapers were datelined from Havana. There's been no further word on earlier reports that the IPC was pushing some of the small foreign media outlets that employ Cuban freelancers to re-hire them through a state employment agency, which would have increased the costs and perhaps forced them to stop using the Cubans. State security agents also continue to monitor the correspondents' phones, cars and home, keeping thick dossiers on their past reports and contacts on Cuba. Foreign correspondents who telephone some of the better-known dissidents from abroad sometimes find their calls cut off immediately after they identify themselves. Follow-up calls result in busy signals. The Obama administration continues to maintain that one of the key goals of its policy toward the island is to improve the ability of Cubans to communicate among each other and with the outside world. In the past two months there were reports that the U.S. State Department had committed fresh funding to two U.S.-based programs that support independent journalists. The programs help to disseminate their reports abroad, and foreign news media that use them can make voluntary contributions to the independent journalists. Cuban government efforts to control the free flow of information were underlined, however, by the continued detention in Havana of Alan P. Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Gross was arrested Dec. 3 after delivering satellite communications equipment to members of Cuba's tiny Jewish community so that they could communicate with each other and the outside world. He has not been officially charged, though Cuban ruler Raúl Castro has hinted that Gross is suspected of carrying out intelligence gathering activities. The Obama administration has strongly denied the allegation.

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