WASHINGTON - Despite the Castro regime's increasingly brutal repression of dissidents and independent journalists, Cuba's underground free press survives three years after a notorious crackdown meant to destroy it, according to a new report released yesterday by Reporters Without Borders.
The report, which documents the struggle against the Castro dictatorship's stranglehold on information in Cuba, marks the three-year anniversary of the infamous March 2003 crackdown on the Cuban opposition. During the "primavera negra," or "black spring," which began on March 18, 2003, Havana's communist dictator jailed 75 independent academics, journalists, librarians, and other freedom activists.
Three years later, 60 of the 75 remain trapped in Fidel Castro's dungeons. An additional 13 opposition leaders remain imprisoned after two dissident roundups last July and are still awaiting trial after eight months. Among the detainees are one of the leaders of the historic May 20 gathering of the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in Cuba, Rene Gomez Manzano, and a prominent Cuban physician and human rights leader, Oscar Elias Biscet.
Both inside the Cuban gulag and out, one leading Cuban pro-democracy activist told The New York Sun, the state of repression in Cuba today is "very much worse than in 2003."
"It has increased tremendously, especially since last summer," Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello said, in Spanish. Ms. Roque, who, along with Mr. Gomez, helped organize the May Assembly meeting, was jailed during the March 2003 crackdown but was released for "health reasons." The dissident is 60 years old and suffers from erratic blood pressure.
Mr. Castro, the dissident said, has resorted to tactics that are "totally fascist" in an attempt to silence the growing opposition to his dictatorship. In addition to ongoing acts of violence against individual democracy activists, including periodic arrests, Mr. Castro has dramatically stepped up his deployment of "rapid-response brigades," citizens' watchdog mobs, often consisting of burly men, that surround and harass dissidents in "acts of repudiation" against the Cuban opposition.
Ms. Roque, reached by phone at her home in Havana, said yesterday that the dictator has also increased his surveillance of dissidents to suffocating levels, probing and harassing democracy activists' neighbors, friends, and relatives for information about their every move. Ms. Roque said that regime agents have surrounded her house for the last 30 days, restricting her access to her own home and prohibiting visits from foreigners, diplomats, and fellow dissidents.
Yet despite the intensified repression - which Ms. Roque said was prompted by the regime's increasing awareness of its own precariousness - those working for a free Cuban press remain undeterred, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Their report, titled "'Black Spring' Three Years After: The Independent Press Refuses to Remain in the Dark," says scores of reporters defy the regime's prohibitions to bring accounts of Mr. Castro's atrocities to the outside world. Dissident journalists relate that the "Black Spring" had a stifling effect on the island's fledgling free press - not only because of the decrease in independent reporting, but also because the detention of leading journalists hindered the training of new reporters. Still, a Conference on Democratic Transition held on February 23 in Havana drew 80 independent journalists, according to the study.
According to the report and other dissident accounts, one of the biggest obstacles for independent journalists remains a lack of Internet access for research and publication.
Only regime officials have uncensored Internet access, and, according to Reporters Without Borders, dissidents say their only option is to risk open association with Mr. Castro's "supreme enemy" by using computers at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. The report states that other embassies in Havana have expressed interest in aiding Cuban journalists, but not at the risk of provoking Mr. Castro and his agents.
Ms. Roque said yesterday that the cause of opening up Internet access has attracted more attention owing to a high-profile, 44-day hunger strike to protest Mr. Castro's censorship. The director of the free Cuban press agency Cubanacan, Guillermo Farinas Hernandez, issued a public challenge to Mr. Castro when he initiated his strike on January 31, pledging to starve himself to death if the Cuban dictator does not grant Cubans free access to information over the Internet. Mr. Farinas is currently hospitalized in critical condition in Santa Clara, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Cuban-American leaders and American officials yesterday expressed solidarity with Cuba's democracy activists on the eve of the Black Spring anniversary, but stressed that as Mr. Castro's oppression continues on a daily basis, so too does the struggle to liberate the Cuban people.
While the 2003 crackdown on the 75 was a "particularly despicable wave of repression," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican of Florida and a nephew of Mr. Castro, "there are a lot more we don't know about - they just disappear, and they're not classified in any way, because the regime simply takes them and it certainly doesn't issue a press release."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, another Cuban-American and Republican of Florida, called on America's "allies and friends around the globe not to forget the Cuban people and our daily struggle for freedom in liberty" in "this most solemn time."
Representatives of the State Department and White House yesterday told the Sun that while they were not aware of specific commemorations of the Black Spring, the Bush administration maintained its support for Communist Cuba's transition to a democratic government and free-market economy.
Such encouragement and expressions of solidarity, Ms. Roque said, are essential to Cuba's dissidents.
"We need moral support," the democracy activist said, stressing the importance of pressuring the Castro regime through constant international attention to his disrespect of human rights.
"And we need material support," she added. "If an embassy gives us one sheet of paper, that's important to us. So is one book. One book is one more for an independent library."