In 2003, the Cuban regime imprisoned 75 dissidents for “subverting the internal order of the nation.” But were they really dissidents? The crackdown which has been referred to as the “black spring” shocked the world’s intelligentsia and press freedom defenders. Cuba once again proved its point that the omnipresent government dominated individual initiative and opinion.
Among the 29 journalists sent to jail was Alejandro González Raga, who was eventually freed in 2008 as part of an agreement between the Cuban government and the Catholic church. Packed on a plane with his family, he was sent to Spain where he has been living in exile ever since.
Doha Centre for Media Freedom spoke to Alejandro about his life in exile and the challenges he has faced since moving to Spain.
What problems do journalists face in Cuba?
The first and main issue is the state’s control of information, which led Cuba from being the “first American territory free of illiteracy” (according to the official slogan) to becoming a country with a very high rate of technological illiteracy that jeopardises social development.
Journalists, social commentators and ordinary citizens who try to exercise their right of expression face other problems. The Constitution describes these limitations:
ARTICLE 62.-None of the freedoms which are recognised for citizens can be exercised contrary to the provisions of the Constitution and the law, or against the existence and objectives of the socialist state, or contrary to the decision of the Cuban people to build socialism and communism. Violations of this principle can be punished.
Material difficulties that occur after anyone has attempted to use their right are indescribable. Whoever makes that step will stand opposite the relentless machinery of the state, which automatically identifies you as a mercenary. It’s important to keep in mind that in Cuba the state is the sole owner of everything and the one who “supplies” shops, markets and police stations. So whoever steps outside that circuit is exposed to many sophisticated repressive instruments, to racketeering and extortion and campaigns for the systematic destruction of their reputation.
Why were you sent to jail?
Just for trying to report independently of state control and collect signatures for a citizen project (Varela project) aiming at setting up a referendum to achieve some change.
How would you describe your stay in jail?
The prosecution requested 18 years, but I was sentenced to 14. I completed 5 years in three different jails.
I spent the first year in isolation confinement in a 2 x 1.44m cell where I had to stay all day, until sunset. Then they would take us to another roofless cell with the same dimensions. After a while they mixed us with common criminals of all kinds. I remember they transferred me from the Canaleta prison in the province of Ciego de Avila to the Kilo 8 prison which is known as “the prison they lost the key to.” There, I was in a cubicle with five people and four of them had killed at least one person. For two years I didn’t have access to an open space. In Cuban jails, there is no way you can practice any sports.
Then, they took me to the Kilo 7 prison where I was in a “galley,” or detachment, along with 150-200 prisoners, where the summer heat was suffocating and the winter’s cold tremendous.
Overcrowding, the lack of food or its poor quality and abuse are the daily norm in all prisons. For us, we were also at the mercy of all – prisoners who could be manipulated and jailers who had been told that you are a wretch who has betrayed and therefore does not deserve to live.
Under what circumstances did you leave prison?
The criteria that were taken into consideration for our extradition in February 2008 are still a mystery to me. I also don’t know why we were not offered the chance to stay in Cuba as it was the case for the prisoners freed in 2010.
We went into exile as the first four prisoners from the group created by the Cuban government when we were arrested in March 2003.
I have always viewed that decision as the desire of the Cuban government to get rid of some prisoners and reward the “management” of Miguel Angel Moratinos, the then Spanish Foreign Minister.
I must say that there was no time spent outside the prison in Cuba, we went straight from the prison to the plane that brought us to Madrid.
How is your life in Madrid?
I am a refugee, without ulterior motives. Like life for anyone living in exile, I try to earn a living in a work market that I have joined relatively late and in the middle of a distressing economic crisis. But this is the price for freedom.
What difficulties do you have?
The difficulties of a refugee. To give you two examples. In the last six years, my children have not managed to get a dignified job. Also, I’ve had a grandson born in Madrid who’s neither Spanish or Cuban. In the middle of this legal limbo, their parents cannot enrol him in a kindergarten. This is just an example.
Will you be able to go back to Cuba?
Although it is my right, my status doesn’t allow it. I don’t think they would let me. They haven’t allowed my brother to see his sons, nor my sister to meet her granddaughter who has just turned six. All this is happening in a context where Europe is trying to set up a new type of relationship with Cuba.
What relationship do you have with your country of origin?
From here, I continue to try and change things. I maintain daily contact with the island. I created the Cuban Human Rights Observatory along with other political prisoners in Madrid from which we monitor the situation. We are now working to establish the Latin American Observatory of Human Rights (ALDH), which will include the participation of citizens in the countries of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). It aims to be as it already is for Cuba an umbrella of protection for human rights activists and the general population in those countries where the standards of civic life are deteriorating and where democratic institutions are disappearing.
Most prisoners of the Black Spring like Alejandro González Raga living in exile are spread across the United States. Three of them live in Madrid.
[In the image: Alejandro along with his wife, Bertha Bueno. Living in exile, Alejandro continues to try and promote human rights in his home country.]