Born in 1951, Manuel Vázquez Portal grew up in the early days of the Castro regime. He received a degree in philology and worked for several years as a teacher. Afterward, he served as a literature advisor in the Ministry of Culture and a journalist with a state-owned media outlet. Through his work, he discovered first-hand how the regime used media and literature as propaganda and banned anything that challenged government ideology. Disillusioned with the regime’s censorship, Manuel focused his talents on children’s literature, a field that offered more flexibility for creativity and imagination.
In 1995, Manuel joined an independent news agency called Cuba Press, and in 1998, he helped form a similar organization called the United Workers Group. In 2003, Manuel was arrested along with 74 other nonviolent dissidents as part of a massive government crackdown known as the Black Spring. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his criticism of the regime. While incarcerated, Manuel worked with fellow political prisoners to organize protests against the prison guards and hunger strikes.
Also during this time, Manuel smuggled his diary out of prison with its descriptions of the conditions he and fellow prisoners endured; his testimonies were published for the outside world under the title Written Without Permission. The Committee to Protect Journalists presented Manuel the International Press Freedom award in absentia for his efforts to expose the regime’s treatment of political prisoners..
In 2004, Cuban authorities transferred Manuel from prison to a hospital; years of abuse and malnutrition had caused his health to deteriorate. Much to his surprise, Manuel was released and went into exile. He brought his family to the United States where he continues to champion a free and democratic Cuba.
And in 1995 an old friend appeared. My old friend walked slow, swaggering a grand humanity with his huge belly. And of course his huge laughter, that of a bewitching poet. My friend’s name was Raúl Rivero[Castaneda]. And he came to convince me to join the Cuban Independent Press. [Raul Rivero Castaneda (1945 - ) is a Cuban writer and former political prisoner and dissident. He was a leading pro-communist figure known as the “Poet of the Revolution” before breaking with the Castro regime in 1989. He was among those imprisoned during the Black Spring crackdown in 2003.]
And so Raul and I and a group of former journalists from the official Cuban press founded the Cuba Press [an independent news agency founded by Raúl Rivero Castañeda]. From there we began the struggle; to do independent journalism. In 97, Raul and I parted ways, he continued at the forefront of the Cuba Press, and I founded the United Workers Group; this was also a journalistic group but with literary intentions as well to promote independent journalism and literature. And it was here, with the United Workers Group, where I was surprised by the Black Spring of 2003.
One afternoon a huge operation took place in my home, a cumbersome operation. Fourteen officers entered my house; they looked in the drawers; they overturned furniture. All they found in my home was some literature, ample poverty, and a desire to be happy with my son who was just nine years old at the time. At the end of the search, where like I told you they only found old poems, unfinished novels, badly written stories... well then they took me to the political police’s headquarters in Havana known as Villa Marista. There, they threw me into a filthy cell along with three common criminals who had been arrested by a [government] operation called the “Shield of the Village” which had the goal of eradicating drug trafficking.
And there I was with those three supposed criminals... it turned out that those three were actually some real Cubans struggling to survive as anyone would say. I don't know if they were linked to drugs or not; of course in Villa Marista not only were there microphones in the walls, even the insects had microphones! And they were not going to tell me anything; I of course never knew whether they were actually drug traffickers or not. And I was there for about 30-something days from March 19 through April 23. Of course, on April 4 they had taken us to a sham trial, a sort of Tartuffe farce ... very similar to Moliere...very theatrical… where we went without any procedural guarantees and were sentenced to between 13 and 28 years. [Tartuffe is the title of a theatrical comedy penned by French playwright and actor Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622 – 1673), who is better known as Moliere.]
I was condemned to 18 years; Raúl Rivero was condemned to 20; Normando Hernández was condemned to 25... and thus the number of years in prison grew to the trifling amount of 28...29 years. On the...22nd ... 23rd of April we rode by in a “guagua” or a bus as it is called here [in Cuba], and they began to distribute us throughout all the prisons in Havana. While driving, we began to run out of island and I thought they were going to send me to Jamaica, and early in the morning we arrived in the town of Santiago de Cuba and we were assigned to Boniato prison.
One of the memories I have there is when Normando Hernández, who had hopped on the bus in the city of Camagüey, approached us and we were talking; they handcuffed us together because apparently there were too many prisoners. I had my hand in one of the cuffs and Normando’s hand was in the other and we thought that we’d share a cell, but the order of the upper political echelons were such that we were going to punishment cells for solitary confinement. [Normando Hernandez (1969 - ) is a Cuban independent journalist and human rights advocate. From 2003 to 2010, he was a prisoner of conscience after his arrest in the Black Spring crackdown. He has lived in the United States since 2011.]
Of course there was no light, no water. The cell was three steps wide and seven long; I remember. I measured them, and then I wrote a book called, Written Without Permission, which is a retrospective on this era of my life, the Black Spring, prison, etc...it begins by saying my cell is three steps wide; my cell is seven steps long. It was, it was narrower than arms outstretched for a hug. Actually, no one would enter that cell. They placed it on you like it was a shirt that was too small. And we began to see the reality of our situation. Of course the protests began; we had no access to the press, we had no access to television, the Internet...forget about it.
Cuba, an island nation of 11.4 million people in the northern Caribbean Sea, is a totalitarian state.
Fidel Castro led the 1959 Cuban Revolution and ruled the country for 49 years before formally relinquishing power to his younger brother Raul in 2008. Raul Castro is the current head of state and First Secretary of the Communist Party, which is recognized by the Cuban Constitution as the only legal political party and “the superior leading force of society and of the state.” Raul Castro has said that he will step down from power at the age of 86 in 2018.
Cuba was a territory of Spain until the Spanish-American War. The United States assumed control of the island until 1902, when the Republic of Cuba became formally independent. A fledgling democracy was established, with the U.S. continuing to play a strong role in Cuban affairs.
In 1952, facing an impending electoral loss, former president Fulgencio Batista staged a successful military coup and overthrew the existing government. While his first term as elected president in the 1940s largely honored progressive politics, universal freedoms, and the Cuban Constitution of 1940, Batista’s return to power in the 1950s was a dictatorship marked by corruption, organized crime and gambling. He held power until 1959 when he was ousted by Fidel Castro’s rebel July 26th Movement.
While promising free elections and democracy, Castro moved quickly to consolidate power. By 1961, Castro had declared Cuba to be a communist nation.
Castro’s communist government nationalized private businesses, lashed out at political opponents, and banned independent civil society. As Cuba aligned itself with the Soviet Union, Cuban-American relations soured, including a U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba. In the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to war, after the Soviets installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, prompting a U.S. naval embargo.
Since the revolution, Cuba has remained a one-party state. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the evaporation of Soviet economic support, Cuba loosened some economic policies, became more open to foreign investment, and legalized use of the U.S. dollar. By the late 1990s, Venezuela had become Cuba’s chief patron, thanks to the close relationship between the Castro brothers and Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez.
The regime continues to exercise authoritarian political control, clamping down on political dissent and mounting defamation campaigns against dissidents, portraying them as malignant U.S. agents. In a massive crackdown in 2003 known as the Black Spring, the government imprisoned 75 of Cuba’s best-known nonviolent dissidents.
The Cuban government does not respect the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion. The government and the Communist Party control all news media, and the government routinely harasses and detains its critics, particularly those who advocate democracy and respect of human rights. Frequent government actions against dissidents often take the form of attacks by regime-organized mobs. Prison conditions are harsh and often life-threatening, and the courts operate as instruments of the Communist Party rather than conducting fair trials.
Cuba relaxed its travel laws in 2013, allowing some prominent dissidents to leave and return to the country. It continues to experiment with modest economic reforms but remains committed to communist economic orthodoxy.
In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, Cuba was designated as “not free” and is grouped near the bottom of the world’s nations, with severely restricted civil rights and political liberties.