As a journalist, and as a Cuban, I have more than a cursory interest in the plight of Cuban independent journalists trying to inform their fellow Cubans, and the world, about the truth about Fidel Castro’s island hell. My colleagues in the United States may think they have it tough with low pay, angry readers and recalcitrant public officials, but they have nothing on Cuban independent journalists like Liannis Meriño Aguilera, who recently received an unfriendly suggestion from two Cuban security thugs that she find another line of work after she wrote a story they didn’t like. She ignored the advice.
Judith Miller, aside, rarely does the simple, but vital to our democracy, task of doing our job win us harassment from the police or land us in jail.
But that is exactly what happened in March 2003, when Castro’s secret police, as part a wider crackdown on the pro-democracy dissident movement, rounded up a couple dozen journalists, poets and other scribes. Within weeks of being arrested, most of them were convicted on trumped-up charges of “anti-Cuba collusion,” or other such nonsense, and sentenced to lengthy terms in Castro’s gulag.
You will find very little in the American media about the Cuban dissident campaign. Possible reasons include still-romantic notions among some U.S. journalists about Castro’s revolution; and the fact that Cuban dissidents don’t have the cachet of Soviet dissidents during the Cold War.
Fortunately, there are international groups, like Reporters Without Borders, that have not forgotten about the Cuban journalists. They keep the pressure on the Castro regime by reporting, with the assistance of family members and other independent journalists, any information about the prisoners that can leak off the island and coordinating a petition campaign and other efforts for their release.
There have been some successes. A handful of prisoners have been released on medical grounds, and Raul Rivero, perhaps the most prominent of the journalists arrested in March 2003, was allowed to leave Cuba for exile in Spain in November 2004.
I am not naive about the Castro regime, and I assume neither were Cuban journalists like Rivero or Victor Rolando Arroyo. They had to know they were putting their life and liberty at risk the moment they put pen to paper and began telling the truth about Cuba under Castro.
As I wrote in a newspaper column shortly before Rivero was released, they felt they had no choice.
Two years before he was arrested, Rivero wrote an essay for an Argentine newspaper explaining his dissent.
"The path I set out on a few years ago, after a total rupture with the government's press and cultural media, has transformed me into a different human being, someone who has liberated himself on his own, someone who in threatened and hostile circumstances could begin the journey toward individual freedom.
"Fear, prison and harassment have served only to give more value to these discoveries. They have contributed to the fact that my devotion to the sovereignty of the individual is now much more than an idea or a necessity; it is an untamable instinct."
The repression of the independent press and other dissidents in Cuba deserves and demands more recognition in the United States and around the world.
Starting today, Uncommon Sense will do its small part to highlight those journalists who remain in prison with a series of postings I call the “March 18 Project,” after the date when the 2003 crackdown began.
VICTOR ROLANDO ARROYO CARMONA
Arrested: March 18, 2003; He was accused of "undermining national independence and territorial integrity" and the judge called him a "traitor to Cuba" and "lackey of the US government," according to RSF.
Prison sentence: 26 years
Reporters Without Borders writes:
Arroyo is a pleasant man with a good sense of humour and does not yield to fear or threats. He is very popular in his neighbourhood and respected by his political enemies. This makes him a dangerous figure in the eyes of local authorities.
He worked as a government planning expert until 1992, when he was sacked after disagreements with his superiors and reclassified as a farm labourer. "I was a revolutionary romantic," he recalls. "I believed in it. Then I thought it wasn’t working because of individuals. Finally I realised it was the system itself that was wrong."
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?
Reporters Without Borders has an ongoing petition drive asking Castro to release the prisoners. You can sign the petition here. (A technical note: Reporters Without Borders is based in Paris, so the confirmation e-mail you will receive after signing the petition will be in French. Just in case you don't read French, the confirmation e-mail asks you click on the link to complete the petition signature process. Castro won't receive your message until you click on the link.)
For more on the Cuban dissidents, including a chance to "adopt a dissident," see the Cuban American National Foundation's Web site.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is find and read the work of independent journalists still on the island. A place to find their articles, in English and Spanish, is CubaNet.