Cuba frees six detainees

Published December 1, 2004

HAVANA (AP) — Cuban authorities yesterday freed dissident writer Raul Rivero, the latest of half a dozen political prisoners released over the past few days in a move widely seen as intended to court favor with the European Union.

Beth Dykstra
Cuban dissident Osvaldo Alfonso Valdes, right, is welcomed by a friend in his home in Havana, Cuba, yesterday. Alfonso Valdes, 39, had been sentenced to 18 years. (AP PHOTO)

“This was a gesture to improve relations, little by little,” the 59-year-old Rivero said, speaking from his modest Havana apartment, where he was surrounded by family and several international journalists hours after his release.

Rivero, the best-known among 75 dissidents rounded up in a crackdown in March 2003, was freed on medical parole yesterday after a checkup at a Havana prison hospital for emphysema and cysts on a kidney.

He had been sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of working with the United States to undermine Fidel Castro’s communist government. Rivero and the other activists denied the charges.

Also freed yesterday was opposition party member Osvaldo Alfonso Valdes. Alfonso Valdes, 39, was also arrested in March 2003 and had been sentenced to 18 years in prison.

The releases came a day after Cuba unexpectedly freed three other men jailed in last year’s crackdown: economics writer Oscar Espinosa Chepe and dissidents Marcelo Lopez and Margarito Broche. Seven others were released earlier. Like Rivero, all had health problems in jail.

Castro’s government made no public statement about the releases, but analysts said Cuba was eager to avoid the possibility the dissidents would die in jail, and also wanted to signal flexibility to the EU amid warming relations with Spain.

The releases came days after Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque announced his country had resumed formal contacts with Spain, despite that country’s repeated criticism of last year’s crackdown on dissidents.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero welcomed Rivero’s release.

“I’d like to express not only my satisfaction, but also my happiness,” Zapatero said in Cuenca, Spain. “In recent years, as secretary general of the Socialist Party, I have had innumerable requests to speak out for Raul Rivero and the other dissidents.”

Rivero, who was significantly slimmer and with more gray hair after 20 months behind bars, said he hoped other dissidents would be freed shortly.

“The information I have is that conditions have been steadily improving for the prisoners,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what is going on, but I think bit by bit they will be released.

“I, at least, will help work for that — especially for the journalists,” he added.

Rivero is among a few professionally trained Cuban journalists who call themselves independent reporters.

He worked many years for Cuban state media, and was trusted enough to serve a stint in Moscow, Cuba’s former backer, before breaking with Castro’s government in 1989. He has published many volumes of his independent writings and poetry.

While in jail, Rivero said he continued to write. He plans to publish a book of poetry, “Heart Without Rage,” as well as memoirs about his time in prison.

The first 11 months were the hardest, he said, as he was placed in small cell in solitary confinement. Conditions later improved, but he sometimes clashed with guards when they refused to give him medicine.

The clashes led to more solitary confinement, and the occasional suspension of conjugal visits with his wife, Blanca Reyes. But he said he was never physically mistreated and even became friends with several guards.

“It’s been a couple of really tense days,” Reyes said, standing by her husband. “It still feels like it’s all a dream. The only time I have been this happy is when my son was born.”

The Paris-based Reporters without Borders, which campaigned for Rivero’s release, said it was delighted he was freed and called on Cuba to free another 24 independent journalists still behind bars.

“Rivero’s release is great news for democracy advocates everywhere,” the group said. “But it must not be forgotten that Cuba’s human rights record remains worse than it was before his arrest, and that the regime still controls the media and the country with an iron hand.”