In mid-2006, CPJ's Journalist Assistance program began sending regular
remittances to the families of independent Cuban journalists in prison.
By CPJ's count, of the 29 journalists jailed during a massive crackdown
in 2003, 24 were still in prison at the time–making Cuba the world's
second-worst jailer of journalists in the world. The remittances, sent
monthly, helped families cover travel expenses to the prisons–sometimes
two days away on shabby buses–and basic maintenance for the jailed
editors and reporters–ranging from food staples like rice and beans, to
clothes, bowls and spoons, to aspirin and specialized medications, all
unavailable behind bars. At the time, I was the Research Associate for
the Americas program, and my job was to contact families and catalog
urgency and needs.
But the Cuba project had begun long before. Seeing the journalists'
health plummet and their families struggle to help while being
systematically blackballed on the government-controlled job market,
Elisabeth Witchel, then coordinator of the assistance program, had been
working to find a way to legally send funds to Cuba. Because the island
is on a list of countries with strict restrictions for financial
remittances (flanking Iran, Somalia, and other nations deemed terrorist
harbors and/or brutal dictatorships by the U.S. government), sending
money to Cuba was a problem.
After months of legal consultations and paperwork, CPJ finally received
a special license from the U.S. Treasury, allowing us to send grants to
Cuba. But the path was still not clear. In May 2006, as CPJ attempted to
send funds for the first time, we hit another barrier–this time a
corporate one. Our transaction would not proceed through Western Union's
system, which was only set up to permit transactions to and from family
members. Though CPJ's license legally gave us permission to remit funds,
technically speaking we literally did not compute. Weeks more passed as
we explored other options, but found no viable and legal alternative.
Finally, it took a call from CPJ's then-Chairman Paul Steiger to a
Western Union vice president explaining the situation before the company
agreed to work out a solution.
And so began the problems on the ground. From the first day of the
crackdown, the wives, mothers and sisters of those imprisoned showed an
uncanny ability to organize into a group, known today as the Ladies in
White. The Ladies tallied needs and conveyed them to me over tattered
telephone lines, in the same way their husbands had filed unreported
news to Miami websites. But like their husbands, the Ladies were also
watched, and no matter how careful we were to keep their identities
undisclosed and our dealings under wraps, the Cuban government quickly
As soon as authorities got word that a group of jailed dissidents was
receiving money from the U.S., the Ladies, labeled "imperialist spies"
by the Cuban government, became a target for harassment. Some were even
called in for questioning. But they did not give up. Instead, they
became better organizers–smuggling out of prisons information on
necessities and ailments, and finding ways to get our assistance in the
form medicine and food back in.
Through the Cuba project, CPJ has helped the families of 24 imprisoned
journalists as well as six journalists released on special parole. The
latter, banned from working and at times from leaving their
neighborhoods, depended on the small amounts of money CPJ was able to
send. They worked with the Ladies, reporting back to us on the health of
journalists behind bars and those who continued to report from Cuba.
Often, they also contributed opinion pieces and savvy news reports to
In mid-2010, four years after CPJ began sending funds, news broke that
the Cuban government and the Catholic Church had struck a deal through
which political prisoners (including independent journalists) would be
released and sent to Spain. After years of assistance work and heavy
advocacy from CPJ's Americas program, the news was received with joy and
great relief. In small clusters, all but two of the imprisoned
journalists were sent to Spain with their families. The two who insisted
on staying in Cuba were released on strict parole conditions.
Simultaneously, the U.S. announced that it was softening its
restrictions to Cuba, allowing easier transfers without need for a
special license. Today CPJ is able to continue helping the journalists
and their families, lobbying with international bodies for humanitarian
assistance in Spain and covering some of the medical costs of operations
for ailments acquired in prison. For those paroled inside the island, we
continue to help meet everyday needs.
María Salazar-Ferro is CPJ's Impunity Campaign and Journalist Assistance
Program coordinator. A native of Bogotá, she studied at Universidad de
los Andes, in Bogotá, and graduated from the University of Virginia.