Being a Cuban journalist: Harassed, repressed, and jailed
By Victor Rolando Arroyo Carmona
The president of the tribunal looked to his right and said, “The prosecutor has the floor.” With a serious voice he pronounced the sentence: “The prosecutor ratifies the request for perpetual imprisonment for the accused, Victor Rolando Arroyo Carmona, for acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the country.”
Cuba’s Black Spring had claimed its first victims from the westernmost point of the country. I was among the chosen. My actual offense? Having become an independent journalist. My first journalistic efforts–mainly reports on human rights abuses and articles on social and economic issues, were broadcast by radio stations owned by Cubans in exile. The work environment for journalists was difficult and outdated. Our only tape recorder was from the Soviet era. We depended on outside contributions to obtain paper, pens, batteries, cassettes, and other media. A bicycle was our only means of transportation. I still long for the Undergon brand typewriter I inherited from my father, which the political police confiscated during an inspection of my house, where I also did my journalistic work.
The repressive state apparatus used intimidating and aggressive methods. My family suffered reprisals, such as being dismissed from their jobs, prohibited from pursuing higher education, and even prevented from participating in cultural and sporting events.
In mid-1996, my writing appeared for the first time in the print media, published in the Nuevo Herald newspaper and in the magazine Carta de Cuba. In the latter, I published an article that gave an economic and social assessment of tobacco cultivation in Pinar del Río. This provoked a violent reaction on behalf of the regime. I was accused of disrespect and assault, and sentenced to a year and six months in prison.
I was put in a special cell in the high-security section of the Kilo 5 y Medio provincial prison in Pinar del Río. In my cell, I was greeted by Carlos, a highly aggressive, paranoid murderer whose lack of medication made him all the more violent. For six months I lived under ever-increasing stress. As soon as I would fall asleep, Carlos would start his screaming. He even physically assaulted me.
My persistence in sending out accounts of the wretched living conditions and the physical and psychological mistreatment of the prisoners increased my jailers’ animosity towards me. On multiple occasions I was taken to the dungeon (the hole) where my food and water was limited as additional punishment.
I served my sentence and was released in April of 1998. Much had changed. Independent journalism was experiencing a surge. Its practitioners had multiplied, grouping themselves in competing press agencies and spending more resources on equipment and financing, which facilitated their journalistic work. I began a period of intense activity associated with the Journalists and Independent Cuban Writers Union (UPECI). I published my first articles on CubaNet and other agencies outside of the country. I continued my radio work and published a regional bulletin called “El Pinareño.” Simultaneously, I established a network of contributors in Pinar del Río, Havana, and Matanzas who provided to information.
There were other acts of repression. My telephone line was electrified, disabling my fax machine. Late one night, “unidentified persons” threw glass bottles at my house and my mother’s house. The state television repeatedly broadcast insults about me, my family, implicating my youngest son, who at the time was 6 years old.
I was thrown in jail again. This time for six months, accused of the “serious offense” of giving gifts to poor children on the Three Kings holiday, January 6, 2000.
I resumed my journalistic work upon release. Friends outside the country furnished me with a desktop computer, a mobile phone, and the other means necessary to cover multiple news events at once. The repression grew stronger. My wife lost her job as a professor. My daughter, after completing her studies to be a telephone operator, with satisfactory results, never received a job offer.
I centered my reporting on the failings of the regime, principally on the topic of public health, advised by a team of qualified doctors and personnel. We documented cases such as the death of newborn babies and their mothers, the result of inadequate medical treatment. We reported on the abominable hospital conditions and the shortage of essential medicines and equipment. I can’t forget the case of Miguel Antonio, a boy who needed a bone marrow transplant and wasn’t given adequate treatment, nourishment, or decent housing. I remember Sessia, a paraplegic girl of 7. I wrote a story called “The prince and the beggar” about her. Both died shortly after I was imprisoned for the third time.
By the onset of 2003, I had already accumulated enough “merits” for the Cuban regime to consider me one of its top enemies nationwide. On the night of March 18, 2003, as I was returning from an intense day of work in Havana, I was detained just meters from my house. In the early hours of the 19th, heavily armed agents burst into both my mother’s and my homes. The search lasted 12 hours. My family was intimated, humiliated, and psychologically tortured. All of my work equipment and other family belongings were seized. For multiple weeks, police agents stood guard outside my house with a single objective: to scare them.
Those were terrible days. Interrogations, physical aggressions, threats, blackmail, and being thrown into very hot or very cold cells. After 17 days I was judged along with three brothers of the cause. At the same time, 75 innocent men were being sentenced throughout the country.
I was given 26 years in prison and confined to the easternmost point of the country, in the highest security provincial prison, in the province of Guantánamo.
(Translated by Karen Phillips)
This entry is part of an ongoing series of first-person stories by Cuban journalists who were imprisoned in a massive roundup of dissidents that has become known as the Black Spring of 2003. All of the reporters and editors were convicted in one-day trials, accused of acting against the “integrity and sovereignty of the state” or of collaborating with foreign media for the purpose of “destabilizing the country.” Seventeen of them were recently released and exiled to Spain as part of a deal between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government; however, three arrested in 2003 still remain behind bars.