I do not bid you farewell. My only wish is to fight as a soldier of ideas. I will continue to write under the title ‘Reflections of Comrade Fidel’. It will be another weapon in the arsenal on which you will be able to count. Perhaps my voice will be heard. I will be careful.
Extract from Fidel Castro’s resignation letter, Granma (translated by BBC Monitoring)
Given his imprisonment and persecution of outspoken writers and journalists over the years, it is particularly ironic that Fidel Castro wants to see out his last days promoting the power of the pen in essays entitled Reflections of Comrade Fidel.
His brother Raúl has been acting president since July 2006, when Fidel, now eighty-one, was taken ill and underwent an abdominal operation. So Fidel’s official retirement is no surprise. Less well anticipated was the release of four prisoners of conscience that marked Raúl’s formal accession in February of this year. All had been arrested during Cuba’s ‘Black Spring’ in March 2003, and were released into exile in Spain. Although no official reason has been given, one can speculate that the combination of quiet diplomacy from the Spanish government and the deteriorating health of the men played a part in securing their freedom. The last thing Cuba wants is for political detainees to die in prison.
In LR April 2006 I wrote about journalist Normando Hernández González. He was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison, accused of ‘virulent and feverish’ counter-revolutionary activity of a ‘socially very dangerous nature’ for his contributions to the CubaNet website and his many reports for Radio Martí, the US government radio station that transmits programmes to Cuba. In July 2004, I focused on Adolfo Fernández Saínz, sentenced to fifteen years in prison for acting against ‘the independence of the territorial integrity of the Cuban State’, and for offences under Law No 88 relating to ‘the protection of Cuban National Independence and Economy’. Both journalists remain in prison and are in poor health.
Another journalist imprisoned in the March 2003 crackdown is Dr José Luis García Paneque, director of the independent news agency Libertad in eastern Las Tunas. He was tried and convicted in April 2003 under Article 91 of the Cuban Penal Code for acting ‘against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state’.
García Paneque received a 24-year prison sentence. According to the international writers’ organisation PEN, he is a member of the Manuel Marquez Sterling Journalists’ Association, an independent association that the Cuban government has refused to recognise, and is the administrator for the Carlos J Finlay independent library in his home town of Las Tunas. He is also a member of the Varela Project, a grassroots campaign aimed at promoting democratic and human rights reform in Cuba, led by Oswaldo Payá. By training, García Paneque is a surgeon and he worked at the Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara hospital in Las Tunas until he was dismissed for his criticism of government policies.
The journalist is married to Llánez Labrada and has four children. Since his arrest, his wife and family have also suffered harassment, including being threatened by armed thugs in 2006 (a government intimidation tactic). In March 2007, the family was forced to flee Cuba and seek asylum in the United States, where Llánez Labrada continues to report on her husband’s ill-health and lobby for his release. She recently told the Committee to Protect Journalists that her husband has been diagnosed with internal bleeding and malnutrition, and that he is suffering from chronic pneumonia.
García Paneque has been dogged by ill-health since his incarceration. Following his sentencing, the journalist was held in solitary confinement until November 2004, when he was taken to the prison infirmary in Havana and was reportedly admitted to the psychiatric ward. Since then he has suffered a number of prison transfers before arriving at Las Mangas Prison in the eastern Granma province in November 2005.
In early June 2007, Dr García Paneque was taken to hospital after he complained of intense abdominal pain. An ultrasound revealed a large cyst on his kidney, which prison doctors wanted to remove surgically. Different reports suggest either that García Paneque was too weak to undergo the operation, due to his severe weight loss (according to PEN this has dropped to just 100 lb), or that the ward was not equipped to treat the journalist properly. Apparently, García Paneque, still desperately ill, was returned to a humid, windowless cell in early August 2007. He shares the space with criminal prisoners who frequently persecute political prisoners. On 28 August 2007, the journalist was reportedly beaten around the head by a fellow detainee and required four stitches above his eyebrow. Human rights groups are increasingly concerned that his various ailments are now life-threatening.
Some campaigners detect a possible shift in human rights policy, and it is considered an opportune moment to send appeals to the new Cuban president. In February 2008, just days after Raúl Castro was sworn in, Cuba signed two legally binding human rights agreements at the UN in New York. The covenants – part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – commit Cuba to freedom of expression and association, and the right to travel.
Readers may like to write a letter of appeal expressing concern at the ill-health of Dr José Luis García Paneque and asking for his immediate release on humanitarian grounds; call for the release of other prisoners of conscience detained in violation of their right to freedom of expression; and point out that by freeing dissidents, Cuba would send a clear signal to the world that it is committed to make good on the recently signed. agreements.
His Excellency Raúl Castro Ruz
President of Cuba
Fax: 00 53 7 8333085 (c/o Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Fax: 00 1 2127791697
Email: email@example.com (c/o Cuban Mission to UN)