Report to the Midyear Meeting

Panama, Panama

March 6 – 9, 2015

In recent months reason for concern and alarm has continued in regard to the lack of freedom of the press and the excessive censorship that the Cuban people suffer. In spite of the important announcement made last December 17 about the reestablishment of relations between the government of Cuba and the United States, no improvements have been noticed in the practice of journalism or access of the population to new channels of information.

The independent journalism movement has gone through moments of great tension and repression over the past six months. Among the most critical of these came at the end of December when artist Tania Bruguera, who had planned a performance in the Plaza de la Revolución, with the idea of opening up the microphones for "one minute of freedom of expression" to any Cuban who wanted to participate. The official response was a disproportionate and extensive wave of repression.

More than half a hundred activists and numerous independent journalists, bloggers, and alterative reporters were arrested. The IAPA condemned the events and pointed out the arbitrariness of the arrests of reporter Victor Ariel González, photographer Claudio Fuentes, activists Antonio González Rodiles and Eliécer Ávila, as well as the house arrest of members of the editorial staff of the digital newspaper 14ymedio.

Among those detained were also reporters from the news sites Cubanet, HablemosPress, and Diario de Cuba. Even today Bruguera is prevented from leaving the country, since authorities have taken away his passport and he is under police investigation.

The turning of the screws of repression against artistic creators has also been felt against Danilo Maldonado, better known as El Sexto. The graffiti artist and sketcher prepared a performance for December 26 and was arrested as he drove a car toward Central Park with two pigs that had their backs painted with the names "Fidel" and "Raúl." El Sexto continues in detention at the Valle Grande Prison without yet being taken to court.

The government of Raúl Castro continues the trend toward "paramilitarization" of repression, with great physical and verbal violence, but attempting not to leave legal footprints. Short-term detentions increased considerably according to a report published in February by Amnesty International. The group recorded a 27% increase in short-term detentions in 2014, based on data from the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Conciliation, which counted 9,000 short-term arrests during the year.

Writer and blogger Ángel Santiesteban, Casa de las Américas Prize winner in 2006, has been in prison since December 2012. He was sentenced to five years for supposed common crimes. In March he should receive the benefits of a reduction of his sentence, but prison authorities have said that he will not enjoy such a possibility. The irregularities in the Santiesteban case have been denounced repeatedly by various non-governmental legal organizations. For its part, Reporters without Borders and Amnesty International have issued several communiqués of concern for his situation and the Inter American Commission on Human Rights has put out an injunction on his behalf.

Journalist and former correspondent of the official newspaper Granma, José Antonio Torres, is still in the Boniato prison in Santiago de Cuba after being sentenced to fifteen years for supposed crimes of espionage. The reporter finally decided to make contact with independent media on the island and provided testimony about his case, revealing irregularities during the trial that led to a disproportionate sentence.

Also, reporter Yoennnis de Jesús Guerra is still carrying out a sentence of seven years for a supposed crime of theft and illegal sacrifice of cattle. Jailhouse violence and serious health issues have led this correspondent of the independent press agency Yayabo Press to live a real Calvary of suffering behind bars.

In February 2014 the Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba (Etecsa) implemented e-mail service on mobile telephones. In just one year, the service has grown to half a million users among the two million four hundred thousand active cell telephones, one of the lowest figures on the planet. The new modality of e-mail by cellphone joins the opening, since 2013, of new Internet access points, now totaling 154. Under the name of Nauta, the service includes electronic mail and navigation at prices that vary between 1.50 CUC and 4.50 CUC per hour of connection. In recent weeks there has been a reduction of prices by half, but they continue to be excessively high for an average wage of 20 CUC per month.

Between January 7 and 8, 39 activists were released from prison, completing a total of 53 names revealed by the government of the United States in conversations between Washington and Havana. For most of the cases, it was not a process of liberation, but rather a change of injunction since no sentence was commuted, nor any document issued that proves the status of freedom.

On December 9, activists Sonia Garro, Ramón Alejandro Muñoz, and Eugenio Hernández had also been released. Independent reporter Juliet Michelena Díaz, arrested on April 7, was also released on November 14.

Alternative information and illegal connections to networks have also gained strength over recent months. Official figures such as Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez and former Minister of Culture Abel Prieto have spoken up against the so-called "package," a compilation of audio-visual material transmitted by alternative means and which constitutes a sort of "Internet without Internet" for Cubans.

Wireless networks for exchange of files have continued growing in number and users. SNET, the most extensive in the western part of the island, could have more than eight thousand computers connected, although it is speculated that there may be more than twenty thousand. These are connections between terminals, for the primary purpose of exchange of files and games on line. In spite of the apparent non-political nature, these clandestine networks are pursued and interrupted frequently. Some of their administrators have been arrested, with confiscation of their technical equipment, and receipt of heavy fines.

After an attempt to renew themes and point criticism toward daily problems, the official press has not been able to create genuine space for debate nor capture the interest of younger Cubans. Programs such as the emblematic Cuba Dice [Cuba Says], which is transmitted within the framework of the primary television news program, seem to be trapped in a vise of blaming bureaucrats and pointing out the poor work of lower-level functionaries, while throwing a good part of the responsibility onto a "lack of social discipline." It continues to be taboo to question the political system or its leadership, or to comment on the electoral process or operations of the National Assembly, as well as to ask questions about the judicial structure and the Ministry of the Interior itself.

As a glimmer of hope we saw the release of contractor Allan Gross, who was completing a sentence of fifteen years after being accused of committing crimes against State Security by delivering communications equipment to people considered to be of the opposition. However, with his departure from the country, there has been no change in regulations regarding the transport or sale of such equipment to individuals, which are prohibited.

In the middle of last year, Google authorized the use of several of its services that had been blocked on the island, such as the free downloading of Android apps and some functionalities of Google Analytics. Netflix, the company that provides streaming of series, also reported that it will begin to operate in the Cuban market, and a few weeks ago Apple joined the wave, with the creation of a department which it called Support of the Cuban People through which it will be able to distribute both hardware and software. The government still has not taken steps in increase connectivity.

On the other hand, censorship of digital sites continues, such as the case of the portals Cubanet, Cubaencuentro, 14ymedio, and many other websites that cover Cuban matters from a point of view critical of the government. Along with these technological filters, pressure against independent journalists continues unabated. At the beginning of 2015 historian and Diario de Cuba collaborator Boris González Arena was expelled from his job at the International Cinema School of San Antonio, an evident reprisal for his political activities and his opinion columns. Juan Carlos Fernández, a correspondent for Revista Convivencia, has also received a number of threats from the police due to his work.

The Pro-Freedom of the Press Association (APLP), a group made up of some 80 independent communicators from around the country, has also suffered pressure from state security agents, who have called in several of its reporters for interrogations. The organization has not received a reply to its request for registration of associations with the Ministry of Justice that it made on March 6, 2006, which sought legalization of the entity.

All those reporters who work without wanting to become part of the docile official press are in a similar situation of illegality. Thus it is that, given the lack of legal support, continuous arrests, and frequent confiscation of work material and censorship, the profession of journalist continues to be one of the most dangerous in the country.