Cuban Agents Send a Message: You’re Free to Say What We Like
EspañolThe practice of independent journalism in Cuba, the worst country in the region for freedom of the press, has become one of the most dangerous occupations. Individuals who seek to tell their own versions of what is happening on the island are often victims of threats, arbitrary arrests, and tortures. The latest incident has caught the attention of human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the Human Rights Foundation, and they have echoed the abuses and called on the international community to take action.
Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez, founder and director of the Hablemos Press (Let’s Talk Press) — an independent news agency founded in 2009 in Cuba — has been receiving threatening telephone calls since June 6. Five days later, these threats came to fruition, and Guerra was assaulted on the streets of Havana on his way to the Czech Embassy to use the internet. In Cuba, some embassies allow journalists, and other pro-democracy and human rights advocates, to use their computers and access uncensored internet.
But that day he never made it to the embassy. Without warning, an unknown individual approached and started to brutally beat him. Guerra ended up with bruises all over his body and a broken nose. During the attack, four men on two motorcycles pulled up beside him, and one of the men said “okay, that’s enough,” before they drove off.
Guerra identified the motorcycles as the ones that are typically used by the Cuban Department of State Security, and recognized one of the four men as someone who had previously repressed opposition rallies.
Roberto and his wife filed a complaint at the police station, where he was even called back to identify his attacker. Nonetheless this made no difference, given that one week later, the same attacker arrived at Guerra’s house and started to shout death threats. Guerra’s wife went to the police station for a second time to file a complaint, but authorities refused to proceed because “it had no grounds.”
Unfortunately this is not the first time that the Hablemos Press director has been the victim from the Cuban regime’s repression.
In April, he was detained after he arrived from an event in Washington, where he spoke about freedom of expression in Cuba. Authorities confiscated his possessions, including documents he received from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Two years ago, police also forced Guerra into a car and beat him while he was taken to the station.
According to Guerra, this is yet another attempt by Cuban authorities to intimidate him and discourage him from continuing his work as a journalist. However, he hasn’t been the only target, other journalists from Hablemos Press have also reported threats from the authorities, particularly during the last two months.
#Cuba Mi vida esta en peligro pero continuare informando pues es mi derecho
— Hablemos Press (@HablemosPress) June 11, 2014
Freedom in Cuba: Only for Socialist Objectives
Cuba’s regime led by Raúl Castro has maintain a state monopoly on television, radio, the press, and internet service providers.
According to Article 53 of the Cuban Constitution, citizens have freedom of speech and of the press as long as it keeps “with the aims of a socialist society.” It strictly forbids private ownership of the mass media: “material conditions for the exercise of that right are provided by the fact that the press, radio, television, cinema, and other mass media are state or social property and can never be private property. This assures their use at exclusive service of the working people and in the interests of society. The law regulates the exercise of those freedoms,” the article states.
“The tight restrictions on the media in Cuba are clearly designed to stop journalists from enjoying their right to freedom of opinion and expression, including freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas,” Javier Zuñiga, a special adviser with Amnesty International told the PanAm Post.
“The violence and threats suffered by Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez are a prime example of the repressive environment that journalists in Cuba are valiantly struggling against,” Zuñiga adds.
Not only is private ownership non-existent, but in order to practice journalism in the state-owned media, journalists must join the Cuban Journalists Association (UPEC), a “self-governing body” that recognizes in its statute (article 4) the Cuban Communist Party as “the highest leading force of society and of the state.”
Amnesty International has demanded urgent action on this matter, and denounced the UPEC compulsory membership as “a means of exerting political control in the field of communications.” According to the organization, “only journalists expressing views in line with official government policies are accredited by UPEC; independent journalists are barred from joining.”
“Cuba is the only country in the Western Hemisphere where it can be said with certainty that freedom of expression is non-existent. Information can only be obtained through state-owned media and the few lucky Cubans who can access the internet, which is tightly restricted by the regime, get their news through a ‘Wikipedia‘ created by the dictatorship,” Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation asserts.
“Instead of being recognized for their fundamental role in informing civil society, any individual in Cuba who dares to report on the reality of life on the island is dismissed as a ‘worm,’ a ‘mercenary,’ and a ‘counterrevolutionary.’ For HRF and for the friends of human rights around the world who are familiar with the work of Hablemos Press, Roberto Guerra is not a worm, but a hero,” Halvorssen asserts.
Javier El-Hage HRF general counsel explained to the PanAm Post the hardships that independent journalists like Guerra have to face:
“Cuba is as tight a dictatorship as ever. The small steps being taken by Raúl Castro towards liberalizing Cuba’s economy have not at all been accompanied by steps towards liberalizing the marketplace of ideas. In fact, there seems to be a regression in that realm… The Cuban constitution of 1976 — which makes any independent press, radio, television, movie theaters, and other mass media illegal — is still in effect, and the brutal government crackdown over those challenging the totalitarian status quo has only increased in recent months.”
Even though development economists and bankers abroad may regard Cuba’s recent economic opening as “attractive and praiseworthy,” El-Hage notes that for human rights heroes such as Roberto Guerra Pérez or other political activists, “these reforms are meaningless.”
“If all these people cared about had been economic well-being, they would have joined the Cuban Communist Party’s privileged apparatchik long before putting their own lives, and their family’s lives, on the line. They certainly will welcome an end to abject poverty, malnutrition, poor-hygiene-related epidemics, and the opportunity to stuff their pantries with fresh food after 55 years of disastrous economic policies. But make no mistake, they want their ideas to be free.”