The most significant development in this period was the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama from March 20 to March 22. An enormous contingent of media outlets—1,500 journalists from 50 countries—was on hand to witness not only the undoubtedly historic occasion, but the brutal repression of human rights activists and independent journalists as well.
In addition to its diplomatic, political and commercial significance, Obama's visit constituted a contribution to the democratic education of the Cuban people. His speeches—broadcast by the state-controlled media—were a true clinic on democratic values, human rights, development and individual freedoms. It would be difficult to overstate his stature among the Cuban people, who already considered him, even before this visit, the most popular leader in Cuba.
One sign of this is the immediate implementation, after Obama's departure, of a political and media campaign to mitigate the damage sustained by the regime's credibility. Former ruler Fidel Castro himself emerged from his usual silence to rail against Obama in an attempt to undo the climate of admiration and reestablish the dogma and stereotypes of the Cold War.
More than 500 people were arrested in the first half of March, 319 of them during the three-day visit of the U.S. president, according to the Cuban Observatory of Human Rights and the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. More than 1,200 arrests occurred in all of March, many of them accomplished through physical violence.
Dissident journalist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca was beaten and detained for several days. He now faces charges of perpetrating an attack. Independent journalist Agustín López Canino was also beaten.
Despite the arrests, brute force and harassment, a number of independent media outlets were able to provide coverage of Obama's visit.
In contrast to the low profile in which the Cuban press does its work, the foreign media enjoyed outstanding working conditions and a certain freedom of movement. For the first time in half a century, Miami-based media outlets, including The Miami Herald, were accredited. In general, the treatment of the international press has softened since relations between Washington and Havana were normalized in 2014.
During the process of rapprochement that began in December 2014, the IAPA has repeatedly insisted that respect for human rights be included in the discussion agenda.
Shortly before the presidential visit, on March 18, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) asked Obama to make the problems related to press freedom and access to information a priority in his conversations with the Cuban government. Cuba ranks 169th out of 180 countries in RWB's 2015 World Press Freedom Index. According to RWB, the Cuban government holds a monopoly over the news, tolerates no independent voices, and bans the existence of free media outlets. RWB also ranks Cuba among the worst countries in the world in terms of Internet access: 115th out of 133 countries.
The Association for Press Freedom, a Cuban organization, sent an open letter to President Obama expressing its concern over the unceasing persecution of journalists and the complete lack of an independent press. The organization asked Obama to "exert direct influence so that the Cuban government will ratify international agreements on civil and political rights to ensure freedom of expression and press freedom and so that it will cease its harassment of the independent press."
In early March, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) stated in its report titled "Criminal Defamation Laws in the Caribbean" that "Cuba has the most restrictive laws on free speech and press freedom in the Americas" and that its Penal Code includes provisions to suppress and punish dissent.
Despite this, independent journalism is growing. Traditional sites for news and commentary—such as Estado de Sats, Revolico, Palenque Visión, UNPACUTV, En Caliente, Prensa Libre and Convivencia, among others—have been joined by newly launched independent online outlets such as El Estornudo and Periodismo de Barrio.
In December, during the celebration of Human Rights Day, the United States urged Cuba to uphold freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement underscoring the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Kerry urged several countries, including Cuba, to cease its hostile policies toward press freedom. The authorities tried to prevent coverage of this celebration and surrounded the offices of the online newspaper 14yMedio. The IAPA condemned this action and demanded an immediate end to the repression and censorship.
Journalists continue to be arrested for short periods of time. Two examples of this are Lewis Miguel Guerra Tamayo and Yasser Fernando Rodríguez González of the Hablemos Press agency, who were arrested on March 16.
In addition, journalists are often given citations by the police in blatant attempts to intimidate them. Examples of this include Carlos Chávez Ramos, Oscar Alejandro Rodríguez, Blanca Margarita Veiga Sánchez and Raúl Ramírez Puig.
Two journalists are currently in prison. One is José Antonio Torres, a former correspondent for Granma newspaper who is serving a 15-year sentence for alleged espionage. The conditions of his incarceration have improved recently.
The other is reporter Yoennis de Jesús Guerra of Arroyo Blanco, Sancti Spiritus, who is serving a seven-year sentence for alleged theft and illegal sacrifice of livestock.
The Cuban people continue to consume an alternative source of entertainment and news known as El Paquete, and they find ways to install illegal network connections in defiance of the daily propaganda diet.
Google announced in March that it is working to bring high-speed Internet to Cuba. Right around this time, a state-of-the-art technology center offering free Internet access was opened in the studio of pro-government artist Alexis Leiva (Kcho). This is part of Google's larger plan to improve Internet access.
It should be noted that this service does not unblock access to censured websites such as Cubaencuentro, Revolico or 14ymedio. Nor does it allow the use of USB or external hard drives. Thus, in addition to strict control and surveillance, censorship continues to bear down on websites that offer a critical view of life in Cuba.
The Cuban people hope that the loosening of sanctions by the United States and the growing interest of investors in business opportunities—whether they arrived before or after the recent rapprochement—also lead to improvements in daily life and greater space for individual freedoms, including freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press.
This hope, however, cannot become a reality unless the Cuban government takes action to put an end to human rights violations.