12/04/2004

Au Goulag Tropical

Il y certains prisonniers dont vous n’entendrez jamais parler…

 

Cuba’s Forgotten Prisoners

By YVONNE CONDE Special to the Sun Ms. Conde is a freelance journalist and author.

    Outside his prison cell lies the city of Guantanamo, in Cuba’s mountainous easternmost province. The 41-year-old man sits in a filthy 18-by-24-foot cell that he shares with 10 other prisoners. He knows he is fortunate because up to 18 men are routinely squeezed in cells of that size. He ponders once again what his fate will be. The water is rationed and the little that is available is contaminated. His food rations are meager and substandard. He suffers from chronic gastrointestinal conditions, which have worsened since his imprisonment. He now suffers from parasites, high cholesterol, hypertension, and has lost 20 pounds.

    In an ironic twist of fate, he finds himself envying the Taliban prisoners, who are geographically so near and yet so far. They receive balanced meals, access to doctors, medicine, the Koran, and visits by international inspectors and politicians.

    Jorge Olivera Castillo is one of the 300 political prisoners inside Cuba’s jails, yet the world seems blind to their plight.There is no international outcry about his living conditions. No visits from the International Red Cross since 1989. No congressional delegations or pop-ins from Greek Orthodox patriarchs or Robert Redford, Sean Penn, Danny Glover, Oliver Stone, or Harry Belafonte. Nor — even though he is black — any support from the NAACP, whose leader Kweise Mfume visited Cuba in 2002 on a “goodwill mission.” There is no outcry from the National Writer’s Union, whose pet prisoner is Mumia Abul Jamal. Mr. Olivera was arrested on March 18, 2003, during Cuba’s greatest crackdown on independent journalists and dissidents, when 75 persons were arrested. This occurred the day after the 59th Session of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights convened in Geneva.

    His wife, Nancy Alfaya, told me, “When I opened the door, there were five security agents, who were later joined by 12 others. After an extensive four-hour search when his papers, writings, and a typewriter were confiscated, he was arrested.”

    And what crime did Mr. Olivera commit? He was an independent journalist, and the director of the autonomous Havana Press Agency in Castro’s Cuba. Independent journalists cannot publish their stories in the island’s statecontrolled press and must dictate them over the phone to overseas news agencies. For reporting the truth, Mr. Olivera was sentenced to 18 years under Cuban law, according to Ms. Alfaya, who calls this “a grave injustice.”

    This legislation was passed by Cuba’s National Assembly in February of 1999. It is officially called the Law for the Protection of the National Independence and Economy of Cuba. The law calls for seven to 15 years of imprisonment for passing information to America that could be used to bolster anti-Cuban measures such as the American economic embargo. But if Castro can’t get a writer under that one, he can reach for the 1997 Law of National Dignity, which provides for jail sentences of three to 10 years for “anyone who, in a direct or indirect form, collaborates with the enemy’s media,” and is aimed directly at the independent agencies that send their material abroad. Mr. Olivera used to work for Cuban television before deciding that he could not continue to pretend to report news. He has been arrested more than 10 times while trying to pursue an independent niche in the island’s controlled press.

    But the prisoners are not the only ones who suffer.

    “To move the prisoners so far is a punishment for family members,” says Ms. Alfaya, who may visit her husband every three months and is allowed conjugal visits every five months. Most prisoners have been moved to prisons far way from their home, although Cuba has 524 prisons: 52 high security facilities, 47 lower-security prisons, 424 correctional facilities, and one especially for foreigners. Nineteen of these are in Havana.

    “Sometimes I travel by train or bus, rarely by plane.The trip takes 18 hours by road, as the Guantanamo prison is over 900 kilometers away (559 miles).” Ms. Alfaya carries a bag with as much food as she can accumulate under her dire financial circumstances, since her job contract with the tourism industry expired and “has not been renewed. This is a job that requires a person to be ideologically correct,” she says.

    Cuba denies that it holds any prisoners of conscience and says that all inmates described as political prisoners are merely common criminals. Mr. Olivera’s wife says,“I am concerned for him, for his health. I ask the world not to forget what is happening in Cuba.”

 


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