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Does last Black Spring journalist's release mark turning point for free expression?

Does last Black Spring journalist’s release mark turning point for free expression?

Published on Monday 7 March 2011.
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The last journalist detained since the March 2003 “Black Spring” crackdown, Pedro Argüelles Morán, was released from a prison in Ciego de Ávila, his home town, on the evening of 4 March and was reunited with his family, concluding a sad episode in Cuba’s history for Reporters Without Borders.

There is now only one journalist in prison in Cuba. It is Albert Santiago Du Bouchet, who was given a three-year jail sentence in April 2009 on a charge of “disrespect for authority.” Reporters Without Borders hopes he will be released soon.

So the Cuban government kept its word. The release of the 52 remaining Black Spring detainees, mediated by the Cuban Catholic church and the Spanish government, is now virtually complete. Only four are still waiting to be freed.

The end of the Black Spring will inevitably raise retrospective questions about the purpose of this crackdown and the seven years of persecution and hate propaganda against its victims and their defenders. Neither the 40 who were forced into exile nor those who were allowed to stay – including Argüelles and two independent journalists released previously – had their sentences annulled.

Most of the crackdown’s victims, who just demanded the right to express their views freely and to report news and information, were absurdly convicted under Law 88, which punishes threats to Cuba’s “territorial integrity.”

The end of the Black Spring could be the start of a new situation for civil liberties in Cuba if the authorities are prepared to learn all the lessons from it. Gestures have recently been made in the form of unblocking certain websites and blogs. But more physical repression was used to prevent a tribute to the dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo on 23 February, the first anniversary of his death in detention.

Such a situation is no longer tenable. The government, which is clearly worried by the current revolutions in the Maghreb and Middle East, should accept pluralism as the way forward. Choosing this option would require a dialogue with civil society and legalization of independent news media that are not controlled by the state.

It would also eventually entail the rehabilitation, or at least an amnesty, for prisoners of conscience and permission for exiles to return. Finally, the Cuban authorities must also honour their international obligations by ratifying the two UN conventions on civil and political rights which they signed in 2008.

The international community, for its part, must take note of the progress that has been made. Reporters Without Borders reiterates its call for the lifting of the unfair US embargo of Cuba that has been in place since 1962. It also urges the European Union to review its common position, under which normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba is conditioned on respect for human rights.

Pedro Argüelles Morán, released on 4th March 2011

Albert Santiago Du Bouchet, jailed since 18th April 2009

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