In this period the most significant development has been the visit of Pope Benedict XVI on March 26 to 29, in which the difficulties of the battle for freedom of expression and human rights were reflected.
It is still too early to measure the significance of the Pope’s visit. It is probable that, like the previous one of John Paul II, it will have been an action that in the long run benefits the Cuban Catholic Church and the democratic future, but in the short term it leaves a trail of complaints, frustrations and questions.
In the weeks prior to the visit, during it, and afterwards repression of dissidents was increased. The sit-in at a church by 13 opponents who called for democracy and respect for human rights was put down by special police forces following a singular request by Cardinal Jaime Ortega. The dissidents were evicted and jailed for several hours. The same day of the Pope’s arrival on the island the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission (CCDHRN) reported that “the number of detainees in the last four days is at least 150 peaceful dissidents.” And it added that “a similar number” were prohibited from leaving their homes or attending the religious celebrations. In addition, control points there were installed and “blacklists” of travelers drawn up and there was an increase in the number of blockages of telephone services and their rerouting to political police offices, all actions that blogger Yoani Sánchez called “ideological cleaning.”
Amnesty International denounced the harassment of the human rights activists “with the aim of silencing them during the papal visit” and cited the “increase in the number of arrests, the disconnection of telephones and the surveillance of private homes.”
Some independent journalists and bloggers (José Antonio Fornaris, Luis Cino, Jorge Olivera, Ainí Martín Valero, Juan González Febles, Dania Virgen García, Gustavo E. Pardo, Eugenio Leal, Calixto Ramón Martínez and Roberto de Jesús Guerra) were prevented from covering the visit through the blocking of their telephones. Alberto Méndez Castelló and Luis Felipe Rojas, stringers for theweb site Diario de Cuba, were arrested and released several days later.
The Rome correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El País, Pablo Ordaz, was denied a visa. In the case of the Miami, Florida, news media Univisión-Channel 23, Telemundo 51 and America Teve-Channel 41 they were not given visas, and neither were the local affiliates of NBC and CBS. Two permits were granted to reporters from The Miami Herald, but several requests by El Nuevo Herald were denied. If one takes into account that nearly 800 journalists from 33 countries covered the Pope’s visit the clear veto of the Miami press is obvious.
Some days before the visit the Pope declared to journalists the invalidity of Marxism and the need to seek alternative models. His words had a wide repercussion throughout the world, but not in Cuba. Access to the Internet was even more restricted in those days. What could be seen and heard by the Cubans was the call by the Pope, expressed in one of his masses, for Cubans to build an “open and renewed” society.
The repression increased after the Pope left. On April 2 in the eastern part of the island some 50 opponents and Ladies In White were arrested; there were beatings, raids on homes, confiscations of personal belongings, cut-off of telephone services, and acts of repudiation.
Despite this background of intimidation and violence, the Catholic Church remained silent. Not even at the Good Friday Mass – televised on the first such public holiday in 50 years – dedicated to “pardon and reconciliation,” was there mention of the violent police operations which continued throughout Holy Week.
The repression preceded Pope Benedict XVI’s visit. During 2011 the CCDHRN counted 4,123 arrests of members of the opposition, double the number made in 2010. As for freedom of expression, Amnesty International said that during 2011 on the island “there continued to be the artbitrary detention of journalists and all the news media remained under state control.”
In the report by Human Rights Watch on the events of 2011 it said, “Cuba remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent. In 2011 Raúl Castro’s government continued to enforce political conformity using short-term detentions, beatings, public acts of repudiation, forced exile, and travel restrictions.” And added, “Independent journalists and bloggers are subjected to short-term arrests and harassment by police and state security agents, as well as threats of imprisonment if they continue their work.”
In 2012 the sitiuation did not improve: during the months of January and February there were on average 600 arrests.
On January 20 dissident Wilmar Villar Menoda died after almost 50 days on a hunger strike. The news of his detention and subsequent death was learned thanks to independent journalists. Referring to it, The Wall Street Journal pointed out the difficulties news agencies have to cover events from Cuba, submitted to being watched and government reprisals and thus obliged to resort to self-censorship.
The government insists on claiming reforms that are no such things; meanwhile its news media continue to be used as propaganda vehicles. Censorship and disinformation remain unchangeable. Curiously, during his speech at the First Communist Party National Conference in late January Raúl Castro urged the airing in a natural way of “discrepancies,” at the same time calling on journalists for greater professionalism. The Conference launched a new call to “banish self-censorship, bureaucratic and sweetening language, easiness, rhetoric, triumphalism and banality.”
Despite the fact that there continue in practice on the island the same actions against freedom of expression (acts of repudiation, police beatings, detentions, public and private threats) few voices among the international press have condemned such actions. Latin American governments remain in silence, even though paradoxically obtaining echo and reflexion in the media of the Americas is the issue of re-admission of Cuba into the Organization of American States or its participation in the Summit of the Americas.
Unchanging is the aim to limit or prevent the people’s access to alernative information channels. In December it was reported that the submarine fiber optic cable installed between Venezuela and Cuba had started operation on a selective basis. To date the population has not benefitted from this service.
In December 2011 the portal Cubadebate announced the start-up of operations of a Cuban Facebook, “Redsocial,” accessible on the national intranet, but it has turned out to be inaccessible from outside the country, nor is it allowed to be connected to those abroad.
American contractor Alan Gross, 62, is serving a 15-year prison term handed down in March 2011 after being accused of commiting “offenses against State Security” by supplying comunication equipment to people who are considered to be opponents. In March, a New York Times editorial declared the following: “Only in a repressive country like Cuba would Mr. Gross’s efforts be characterized as a threat to the state. Full access to information and communications is a human right.” In calling for his release the newspaper said, “The Pope must press the Cuban leader to end the harassment of dissidents and tell him that the world has not forgotten the Cuban people’s yearning for freedom.”
The activity of independent bloggers continues and is consolidating their prestige on and off the island and they are increasingly using new technologies – placement of videos on the web and the use of cell phones and Twitter have become tools for denunciation that the regime has been unable to silence.
Early in March blogger Yoani Sánchez was included on the list of the “150 women who rocked the world” in 2012 by Newsweek magazine. Despite it all, government actions to silence bloggers persist. In January, some days before the visit to Cuba of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, Sánchez sought permission to travel to Brazil to take part in the presentation of the documentary “Conexión Cuba-Honduras,” on press freedom in Cuba and Honduras. Despite the fact that Brazil granted the visa, the Cuban government prohibited her from leaving.
An emerging civil society, made up mainly of young people, continues with its reflections on the national reality and voicing strong criticism of the Cuban government and system. Such is the case of Estado de SATS, Observatorio Crítico, Cofradía de la Negritud and Observatorio Cubano de los Derechos LGTB. The government has deployed efforts to sabotage these projects. For example, the April 7 meeting of Estado de SATS was devoted to the issue of repression during the papal visit. Several dissidents, among them journalist Julio Beltrán Iglesias, were detained to prevent them from participating.
On April 4 the suicide occurred in Las Palmas, Grand Canary Island, of Santiago Du Bouchet Hernández, a former political prisoner and director of the news agency Habana Press. The suicide of the independent journalist and former prisoner of conscience belonging to the Group of 75 has been interpreted as the result of a number of factors – the consequence of imprisonment, financial difficulties, and failure to adapt to life in forced exile. Other journalists and dissidents exiled in Spain fear losing the meager assistance granted by the government.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in its 2011 annual report kept Cuba on its “black list” of countries in the Americas where the worst human rights violations occur. It said that in the period there had been no change regarding restrictions of political rights, freedom of assembly, expression and thought, absence of elections and an independent judiciary, and restrictions placed on freedom of movement.