01 October 2015


December will mark the one-year anniversary of the announcement of restored relations between the governments of Cuba and the United States. The Cuban people, however, are still awaiting the moment when this new era will be felt in their daily lives, in the form of an improved economy, respect for human rights, and greater freedoms of expression, association, and the press. The work of journalists has continued to be strained in recent months by censorship and the monopoly exercised by the Communist Party over the Cuban media. Still, the independent journalism movement has continued its work in the past six months and has scored some victories in reporting the news. These include its coverage during times of repression, such as during the visit of Pope Francis. One of the achievements of the independent sector was the first “Encuentro de Pensamiento para Cuba” (Meeting to Think for Cuba), sponsored by the independent think tank Centro de Estudios Convivencia and the magazine of the same name. Founded in 2007, the magazine now has 45 published issues and tackles topics ranging from culture to civic-mindedness. The establishment of 35 Wi-Fi hotspots has sparked a social phenomonen, with hundreds of thousands of Cubans going to these plazas and parks to access the Internet. According to government figures, some 55,000 Internet connections are made per day from each of these hotspots, with at least 8,000 occurring at any given time. The people’s need to access the World Wide Web, reunite with friends on social media, write emails, and visit websites is so great that many are managing to overcome the burden of paying two convertible Cuban pesos (about 2.20 U.S. dollars) — one-tenth of the average monthly wage — for a one-hour Internet connection. Cuba surpassed 3 million Internet users in 2014, but it still has one of the lowest connectivity rates in the world, at only 5% — and only 1% for broadband connections. This is despite the fact that the Barack Obama administration has implemented measures in recent months to make it easier for U.S. technology and telecommunications firms to establish contacts with Cuba, and has expressed special interest in helping to provide the Cuban people with access to information technology. Meanwhile, Internet censorship continues, as experienced by websites such as Cubaencuentro, Martinoticias, and the online newspaper 14ymedio.com, as well as other sites that approach Cuban issues from a viewpoint critical of the government. Email filtering and the suspension of cellphone service are used in addition to the reprisals taken against independent journalists and activists for their work. In June 2015, reporter Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca stated that he was arrested multiple times while trying to document, with video and photography, the repression experienced by the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) after their weekly Sunday procession along 5th Avenue in western Havana. The independent journalist wrote a letter to the Inter American Press Association and to Reporters Without Borders, detailing the repression to which nongovernment journalists are subjected. Valle Roca cited, among others, the arrests that lasted for “several days with no warrant for our arrest or for holding our belongings” and “the confiscation of our work materials.” This “is part of the coercive apparatus,” he added, “because once cellphones, photographic cameras, and USB memory devices are confiscated, the political police will often proceed to erase their content.” Danilo Maldonado Machado, a graffiti artist known as “El Sexto,” remains behind bars nine months after his arrest. He had prepared a performance and was detained while driving toward Central Park with two pigs whose sides were painted with the names “Fidel” and “Raúl.” Inside Valle Grande Prison, where he is being held without trial, he started a hunger strike on September 8 to demand his immediate release. Amnesty International considers Maldonado Machado a prisoner of conscience and has issued a statement further calling on the authorities to “repeal all legislation which unduly limits freedom of expression, assembly and association.” Meanwhile, the government of Raúl Castro is continuing the trend toward the “paramilitarization” of repression, characterized by physical and verbal assaults that are not tracked in the legal system. This method was on display during the visit by Pope Francis in mid-September, especially in the detention of dissident Martha Beatriz Roque and independent journalist Miriam Leiva while they were on their way to an event, at the invitation of the Apostolic Nunciature, to meet the pope at the Havana Cathedral. Writer and blogger Ángel Santiesteban, winner of the 2006 Casa de las Américas Prize, was released in July 2015 after behind held in prison since December 2012. During his detention, Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International issued a number of statements, and the IACHR granted him precautionary measures. The novelist was sentenced to five years for alleged “common crimes” but has now been paroled in what he describes as an act of “blackmail” to get him to “behave himself.” José Antonio Torres, a journalist and former correspondent for the progovernment newspaper Granma who is serving a 15-year sentence for alleged espionage, was granted a prison benefit. The reporter has been given weekend passes to visit his family and permission to work at the prison library. Torres maintains his innocence. Reporter Yoennis de Jesús Guerra, who is from the town of Arroyo Blanco en Sancti Spiritus, is still serving a seven-year sentence for alleged theft and illegal sacrifice of large livestock. The correspondent for the independent news agency Yayabo has serious health problems and has been subjected to violence behind bars, and his plight has been denounced by human rights groups both in Cuba and abroad. Before the arrival of Pope Francisco in Cuba, pardons were announced for 3,522 prisoners. Elizardo Sánchez, a spokesman for the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), confirmed that no political prisoners were among those pardoned. According to the CCDHRN, the number of those imprisoned “for political reasons or due to politically influenced procedures” remains at 60. The illegal list of alternative audiovisual media and news known as “El Paquete” (The Package) has continued gaining ground among the Cuban people and is causing much concern in government circles. To counter its ascent, the Ministry of Education launched a progovernment alternative under the title “Pa’que te eduques,” which seeks to become “an attractive offering for teaching in Cuba,” using content that is in “good taste.” This is not the first time that the government has tried to compete with El Paquete. In August 2014, the government’s network of computer clubs began distributing “La Mochila” (The Backpack), an ideologically influenced selection of audiovisual media, but it has had little success among the people thus far. The progovernment press has shed light on growing problems in Cuban society, such as corruption, the misallocation of funds, and a lack of business efficiency, but it always stops short of questioning the political system or party authorities. The self-censorship of government-affiliated reporters is evidenced not only in the topics and approaches that they avoid, but also in the lack of media outlets for investigative journalism that might exert pressure on government entities to operate more transparently.