UPDATED, July 14 — Omar Rodríguez was released from prison in July 2010, under a deal between Spain, the Catholic Church and the Castro dictatorship.
"They warn me that I could be jailed, that I should think of my family. ... But I am convinced it is my duty to inform and be informed."
Omar Rodríguez Saludes, May 2002
In a twisted sort of way, it makes sense that Omar Rodríguez Saludes received the longest of the prison sentences — 27 years — being served by the more than 20 independent journalists arrested during the "black spring" of 2003.
After all, his fellow independent journalists, all of them amazing reporters and editors, considered him the best.
The New York Times profiled Rodríguez 10 months before he was arrested. It is one of the best MSM stories on Cuba's independent press I have read.
HAVANA- Omar Rodriguez Saludes chases the news around Havana on a battered, child-size bicycle. He can make his deadline if he does not have a flat tire, which can take a long time to repair, and if a corner policeman does not confiscate his notes, tape recorder and camera.
Mr. Rodriguez is one of about 100 independent journalists currently trying to ply their profession in Cuba, where President Fidel Castro, even after 43 years in power, has never loosened severe restrictions on the press. Denounced by the government as counterrevolutionaries and barred from covering official events, Mr. Rodriguez and his colleagues who work outside the government-controlled news outlets provide accounts of political prisoners and dissidents, while also reporting on the immense frustrations of daily life. They write their articles in longhand, or on an 1980 Olivetti typewriter that several of them share, passing it along every week or so. Then they dictate by telephone to several Web sites on Cuban affairs based in Miami, which give them small and irregular stipends.
In early May, Mr. Rodriguez, who is 36, had to watch from the sidelines during the biggest news event in Cuba in his lifetime, when former President Jimmy Carter paid a six-day visit to the island. Mr. Carter toured schools, hospitals and other government showcases. But the one chance Mr. Rodriguez had to cover him -- the day Mr. Carter met with human rights advocates -- was almost lost when he had to mend yet another tire.
"I got here last, as always," Mr. Rodriguez said with a sigh that day, as he locked up his bicycle and wedged himself into a gaggle of reporters keeping vigil outside the human rights meeting. "I already missed taking the photo when they arrived. Now I have to stay on top, take the photo, record interviews -- and watch the bike."
Of all the Cuban journalists I have profiled, and will profile, as part of the March 18 Project, Rodríguez leaves me the most in awe.
The man, as the New York Times story makes clear, is a journalist's journalist, committed solely to telling the real story about Cuba. Before he was arrested, he would do anything to get the story — including putting at risk what little freedom he enjoyed.
The man, like his colleagues in and out of prison, is a hero.
The N.Y. Times story also offers a glimpse of how the independent press in Cuba worked before "the black spring:"
Rather than criticizing the government directly, Mr. Rodriguez and other independent reporters focus on social issues, like the shortage of fresh milk for children and the double standard Mr. Castro has created by promoting a tourist industry for foreigners in places where Cubans are barred.
"We can give a human perspective on Cuba," said Raul Rivero, a poet and writer who is the island's most well-known independent journalist.
Every two weeks or so, a half dozen reporters, some of whom have traveled from the provinces, gather to send their reports from a cramped apartment in Havana's Chinatown, the makeshift headquarters of one news agency. One recent morning, Mr. Rodriguez waited his turn for the phone to call the United States. One other reporter had a detailed account of the government's rejection of a small pension for the sister of a revered poet. Another polished a report about local officials who refused to allow private trucks to be used for desperately needed public transportation.
"We know the risks we are taking," Mr. Rodriguez said. "The risk is even in our homes. The government knows what we do and it watches. They know our lives better than we do."
He longs, he said, to see the Web page that runs his work. Like many of his colleagues, he has never surfed the Internet.
"I have never seen my photos, except as negatives," he said. "I am a blind photographer."
Rodríguez, who is now 40, was arrested March 20, 2003. Two days earlier, at the start of "the black spring," the secret police searched Rodríguez's house and took three cameras, video cassettes, audio cassettes, many files and, according to witnessess, medicines for Rodríguez's then-4-month-old daughter, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
At his trial, according to RSF, he "was charged with'endangering the state’s independence or territorial integrity.' The court also found him guilty of giving 'distorted' information about Cuba’s reality to 'illegal' and 'hostile' publications 'with the manifest intention of attacking the Cuban revolution.'
In plain English, Rodríguez was arrested and convicted for doing his job too well, and in Fidel Castro's Cuba, that is not allowed.
The prosecutors asked that Rodríguez be sentenced to 15 to 25 years in the gulag.
The judge, who in Cuba is just another agent of the dictatorship, gave him 27 years.
For more about Rodriguez, in Spanish, visit PayoLibre.
For more on Uncommon Sense's March 18 Project, including profiles of other independent journalists, in and out of prison, read here.
To see pictures of all the imprisoned journalists, go here.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?
Reporters Without Borders has an ongoing petition drive asking Fidel Castro to release independent journalists in prison. 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, visit the Cuban American National Foundation's Web site.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is find and read the work of Cuba’s independent journalists. A place to find their articles, in Spanish, English and French, is CubaNet.