Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    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
    the desert.”

    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
    Journalist –