CUBA’S ‘BLACK SPRING’ STILL HAUNTS JOURNALISTS
David Soler 8 February 2016
Years after their release, two Cuban journalists look back at lost years.
In March 2003 the world’s attention was transfixed on Iraq as the United
States prepared to launch a divisive military assault on Saddam
Hussein’s government. Meanwhile just 90 miles from U.S. shores, Cuban
President Fidel Castro seized the opportunity to launch an assault of
his own on internal critics–an offensive that drew little attention from
an international community focused on the prospect of war in the Middle
On April 2, as U.S. forces neared Baghdad, Cuban reporter and
photojournalist Omar Rodríguez Saludes returned to his home in Havana
late. There, Cuban police were waiting for him. They searched his house,
finding a 2002 New York Times’ article highlighting his work as one of
about 100 independent journalists working in the Communist nation. “I
remember they shouted with surprise: ‘Look at this!’” says Rodríguez.
“For them that was as if they found a bomb.”
Rodríguez was one of 75 journalists, human rights activists and
political dissidents arrested in a sweep that became known as Cuba’s
“Black Spring.” For Rodríguez and others rounded-up, the arrest was a
life-changing event. All would languish in prison for years after
show-trials on charges of undermining the government. “This is
following Sept. 11th, the world is focused on the U.S. intervention in
Iraq,” says Ted Henken, a Latin American studies researcher at Baruch
College in New York. “The suspicion is that it was done because no one
was paying attention.”
Rodríguez, a former shipyard worker who loved photography, was recruited
into journalism in the early 1990s by Raúl Rivero, a poet and former
correspondent for Cuban state media who broke with the regime in the
late 1980s and became a leader of Cuba’s fledgling independent press.
Rodríguez would walk and bicycle about the countryside taking pictures
“trying to show the contrast between the government’s narrative and the
real destruction” of Cuba’s economy and political freedoms.
Since independent news media is banned inside Cuba and Internet access
is a luxury for the rich even today, Rodríguez’s news agency, Nueva
Prensa Cubana, mainly distributed his photos and reports to a U.S.
audience of Cuban exiles. “Our job was to show our reality to the
outside world,” he says.
Rodríguez also worked for Radio Martí, a Florida-based radio network
financed by the U.S. government that is often jammed inside Cuba.
Relaying reports to the U.S. wasn’t easy. “We recorded our information
and sent it by telephone to Miami,” he says. Getting access to a
telephone at the time was “like finding a drop of water in the middle of
But in spite of working for media outlets critical of the Castro
government, it may have been Rodríguez’s work on a petition drive
demanding greater human rights in Cuba that led to his arrest. That
effort, known as the Varela Project, was a petition drive led by
dissident Oswaldo Paya that collected 11,000 signatures in a demand for
a referendum on democratic freedoms, including freedom of speech and the
release of political prisoners.
The petition was presented to Cuba’s national assembly in May 2002. But
instead of spurring change, it led to incarceration for those who
circulated the petition. Ten months later, Rodríguez and dozens of
others who gathered signatures for the Varela Project were in prison.
Among those jailed at the same time as Rodríguez was Alejandro Gonzaléz
Raga. Gonzaléz, who grew up in the central provincial city of Camagüey,
had been a rebellious child. His mother was a senior official in the
local office of Cuba’s interior ministry, but Gonzaléz frequently
skipped school and hid from her when she came looking. “I was always the
type of kid who did whatever he felt like,” he says, in an interview
with Global Journalist. “I never let anyone burden my freedom.”
Gonzaléz went on to help found the Camagüeyan Press Agency, an
independent news outlet, and reported on “things that needed to be
published,” he says. His memories of his 2003 arrest are still fresh.
“They put me into a police car and never told me why I was arrested
until three days later,” he says. “My wife later told me that they went
through our house with dogs, inspecting it as if I was a drug dealer.”
His sudden detention was wrenching, and after a trial, he was sentenced
to 14 years in prison. “You never forget your first day in prison,” he
says. “I was in a dark cell with no light and I was the only one in my
section that hadn’t murdered someone.”
Life was difficult for the families of both men while they were in
prison. During his hearings, Rodríguez, was barred from talking to his
lawyer outside the courtroom and at one point, fainted from low blood
sugar, according to a U.S. lawsuit filed against the Cuban government by
his family. His son told the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2008
that he had been blacklisted from government jobs in Cuba. “Having a dad
in prison is my crime,” 19-year-old Osmany told the New York-based press
group, at the time. Rodríguez was repeatedly transferred from prison to
prison in different parts of the island–at one point his family had to
travel 528 miles (850 kilometers) over two days to make a two-hour visit.
In one prison, in Camagüey, Rodríguez was kept in solitary confinement
for weeks. In another he shared an overcrowded cell with 16 other
prisoners, the only light coming from a single bulb in a nearby hallway,
according to his family’s lawsuit. He was beaten, and pestered by rats
and insects. He suffered from a liver ailment and a kidney infection
and did not receive adequate medical care.
González too was shifted from prison to prison across the island,
straining his connections with his family. “I was in three different
prisons more than 100 kilometers away from my home,” Gonzalez says.
“Family visits were limited to every 90 days. Lots of couples ended
breaking up as they couldn’t cope with the situation.
For both men, the end of the ordeal began with separate phone calls from
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the top Roman Catholic official in Cuba, who had
worked with the Spanish government to broker their release. The choice
Ortega offered: exile in Spain with their families, or remaining in
prison and allowing their families to live in Cuba.
For Gonzaléz, the call came in 2008, five years after his arrest–and
just months after Spain announced it would reestablish some aid programs
with Cuba halted after the Black Spring. Along with two other
dissidents and their families, he boarded a Spanish air force plane and
left. “They took my picture, gave me a passport, and the next day the
Spanish government put us on a plane,” he says.
Rodríguez’s call came in 2010, after he’d been in prison for seven
years. “My intention wasn’t to leave Cuba, and they [the Cuban
government] knew that,” says Rodríguez.
The timing, he now believes, was connected to Cuba’s arrest in late 2009
of Alan Gross, a U.S. contractor for the U.S. Agency for International
Development whom Cuba accused of attempting to undermine the government.
With Gross behind bars in Cuba, the Castros had a new bargaining chip in
their effort to gain the release of five Cuban intelligence agents
convicted and imprisoned in the U.S. since the late 1990s–making the
Black Spring prisoners superfluous. (Gross and the Cuban 5 were released
in December 2014 after the two countries announced a plan to reestablish
diplomatic ties). The whole detention, Rodríguez says, was a “mafia
action to trade us” for the Cuban spies in prison in the U.S.
“When we got to the plane, the whole cabin crew was waiting for us,”
says Rodríguez, of his Air Europa flight out of the country. “I remember
how the captain said: ‘Welcome to democracy and Spain,’ and then hugged
me. It was a very emotional moment.”
Still, exile from their homeland has been difficult for both men,
neither of whom is still still a journalist. Both Gonzaléz and Rodríguez
received government welfare payments for two years after they moved to
Spain. Gonzaléz went on to found an activist
group, the Cuban Human Rights Observatory in Madrid. But his three
children, all in their 20s, struggled to find work without proper
permits. In a 2010 news article, he publicly criticized the Spanish
government, saying it had “ignored” the needs of exile families.
Rodríguez also had difficulty finding work, and eventually left Madrid
for northern Spain where he went to a trade school before emigrating to
the United States. Today he works for a metal construction company in
Houston. He still hopes to return to Cuba one day. “But not how it is
now, things would have to change,” he says.
Nor has his view been softened by Cuba’s rapprochement with the United
States last year. “Obama gave a handshake to a man who with the same
hand signs death sentences,” Rodríguez says. “That’s something very,
very hard for me to understand.”
Source: Cuba’s ‘black spring’ still haunts journalists – Global