Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Political Prisoner Game (Part 1)

Last month, during President Obama's historic visit to Cuba, a US reporter asked Cuban leader Raul Castro about political prisoners on the island. The subject of prisoners in Cuba is a perennial theme in the US media, and the question again provided journalists a convenient excuse to report unfavorably about the Cuban government. Raul Castro's denial of holding political prisoners was met with predictable urgency by several media outlets to prove him wrong and frame the Cuban government as an outlier in the region. But, ironically, the rush to defend Cuban political prisoners revealed poor judgement and irresponsibility by many reporters. Several outlets used a list of political prisoners with controversial and/or violent backgrounds, and other lists were unreliable and missing information. The response by the media showed traditional disregard of facts when reporting about the island, and denied the contentious issue of political prisoners the tactfulness it deserves.


Last month, during a rare press conference with Cuban leader Raul Castro, CNN's Jim Acosta (a Cuban-American) asked Castro a purposely naive question: "I wanted to know why your country has Cuban political prisoners and why you don't release them." Looking annoyed, Castro demanded that he be given a list of names and that he would release them all by the end of the day. But, his sarcasm became evident when he later asked out loud: "What political prisoners?" Back in January, the Cuban government released 53 prisoners as part of a deal with the US to restore normal relations. Way back in 2010, Raul Castro participated in the release of 52 high-profile Cuban political prisoners of the Black Spring. Perhaps Castro thought he had already solved this problem.

Immediately, Univision's Jorge Ramos was among the first to respond to Raul Castro with a list of 47 names of political prisoners provided by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). Many other news outlets soon followed using this list. TIME magazine provided a different list provided by the Directorio Democratico Cubano (Cuban Democratic Directorate). Directorio's list had 51 names, sharing some names with CANF but mostly using different names. In Cuba, the independent website 14ymedio published a list of 77 names provided by dissident Elizardo Sanchez of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. And, an editorial by The Miami Herald presented readers with the CANF list and another list of 75 names by a Madrid-based organization called Observatorio Cubano de Derechos Humanos (Cuban Observatory for Human Rights). The four lists mentioned above have been the most prominently cited, and each one is very different.

Let's review some basic problems with the lists before analyzing the more complicated ones. REMINDER: This is not a thorough review of all names on the list, just the ones I could identify as problematic based on my limited time.


One of the reasons I'm providing this review is because I've seen this political game of lists before. Back in 2010, the not-so-independent Cuba Archive failed to check their list of Cuban prisoners who died from hunger strikes. Similar errors occurred here.

The Politifact website was the first to identify some errors when they reviewed and compared the Cuban political prisoners lists that flooded the media last month. Unknown to them, they used different versions of the CANF and Directorio lists. After creating a spreadsheet with all the names of prisoners, they discovered that some prisoners had already been released. The note at the bottom of the spreadsheet reads: "Victims of Communism [website] also listed several people who have since been released. They were not included in this spreadsheet." The VOC website updated their list after the errors were found. But, Politifact still has errors on their aggregate list of 97 names. Four prisoners on their list were released earlier in March and landed in Miami just a few days before President Obama arrived in Cuba. Also, there are names that repeat: Lazaro Avila Sierra (#5) and Lazario Avila Sierra (#70); Verdecia Amado Diaz (#7) and Amado Verdecia Diaz (#13).

The editorial by The Miami Herald also failed to double-check one of their lists. One link they used sent readers to the Observatorio list of political prisoners from 2015. That old list of 75 names includes the four released prisoners mentioned above. A new updated list by Observatorio now has only 66 names.

And, a closer look at the CANF lists shows a possible date error. The list shows Edilberto Alzuaga Alcala (#12) imprisoned in 2011, and given a one year sentence. A previous record of the CANF list showed that Alzuaga was added to the list in 2015, so the 2011 date is most likely an error. According to Cuban dissident Martha Beatriz Roque, Alzuaga was indeed imprisoned in 2015, but she writes he was imprisoned in February and serving a one year sentence. Given this information, it is possible that Alzuaga may already be free.


Other examples of contradictory or missing information, like that of Edilberto Alzuaga Alcala, include listed prisoners Liusban John Utra and Eglis Heredia Rodriguez.

A long-time member of the Cuban dissident group UNPACU (Union Patriotica de Cuba), John Utra's activism inside Cuba has been reported since 2012. According to the CANF list, John Utra (name #1) was imprisoned in 2013 with a 7 year sentence. Strangely, CANF, unlike other lists, did not provide the charges placed against all their prisoners. But, according to the Observatorio list, John Utra (# 47) was charged with "robo con fuerza" (burglary with forced entry). Eglis Heredia (#65), also a member of UNPACU, had the same charge.

After Raul Castro asked for a list of political prisoners, both UNPACU members appeared on some lists, but not all. They did not appear on the list provided by the Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation led by long-time dissident Elizardo Sanchez. And when UNPACU founder Jose Daniel Ferrer was asked to provide a list of political prisoners, he also did not include John Utra or Eglis Heredia despite the fact that both are members of UNPACU. The reason for their exclusion was explained last year by long-time Cuban dissident Martha Beatriz Roque: "[Eglis Heredia's] sentence [for burglary with forced entry] is not related to his role in the opposition, as is stated on a list. Mr. Heredia is not a political prisoner, but he did join UNPACU upon being [temporarily] released from jail." The same discretion was most likely applied to Liusban John Utra.

And this highlights another problem about the lists of Cuban political prisoners: Cubans taking up political causes while serving sentences for non-political criminal acts. Unknown to many, some prisoners in Cuba are allowed conditional release from prison under a form of supervision based on the severity of their crime. A report from Radio Marti mentioned that Liusban John Utra was arrested in 2012 for his political activism while under conditional release for a "common crime." This was the same infraction that Eglis Heredia committed in 2014.


In part two I will go over the more complicated subject of Cuban prisoners incarcerated for more violent acts. In these cases, it not clear where to draw the distinction between acts we can tolerate as politically benign or politically dangerous. In some cases, the so-called political prisoner was planning long-term armed violence. In others, violence was a means to a short-term selfish goal. In any case, these are examples that require more careful observation, and should not be glanced at from a list.