Cuban journalist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca, recently freed and in exile in the US, tells story of his three years in detention

The journalist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca remembers like it was yesterday the moment he confronted the Cuban dictatorship. It was 1987, the day of his grandfather’s funeral, the communist leader Blas Roca Calderío, who for years had been secretary general of the Popular Socialist Party and for a time headed the newspaper Noticias Hoy, the predecessor of the current government outlet Granma.

Valle Roca, then 26, recalls how Fidel and Raúl Castro humiliated his grandfather in his final years. An ideological rift had occurred a decade earlier over the 1976 constitution between Roca Calderío and the Castro brothers, who were then the commanders of the Communist Party of Cuba and the country.

The final straw came at his grandfather's wake in the iconic Plaza de la República, when Raúl Castro called him over and suggested he take away his grandmother. Valle Roca remembers that he became furious and insulted the Cuban authorities in front of other attendees, then sat with his grandmother, who remained next to the coffin.

Cuban journalist Yuri Valle Roca is being detained in the streets of La Habana.

Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca was arrested in June 2021 and a year later was sentenced to five years in prison for "continued enemy propaganda." (Photo: Courtesy of Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca)

"I wasn't afraid of them," Valle Roca told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). “I think that's a flaw I have. I don't feel fear.”

Years later, this fearlessness led Valle Roca to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, Vladimiro Roca, and openly oppose the Cuban regime. He joined a group of community journalists, marking the start of his journalism career.

As a journalist, Valle Roca collaborated with opposition media like Radio Martí, and in 2018, he founded Delibera, a blog where he reported on the authoritarian actions of the dictatorship.

In June 2021, he was arrested after posting a video on his YouTube channel showing leaflets being thrown on a street with messages against the dictatorship and in favor of democracy. He was imprisoned in Villa Marista, the Cuban state security headquarters, and later transferred to the maximum-security Combinado del Este prison. A year later, in July 2022, he was sentenced to five years in prison under charges of "continued enemy propaganda."

Valle Roca's imprisonment and sentence were condemned by organizations like the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and the Press (ICLEP) and the Cuban Observatory of Human Rights. International organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), Amnesty International, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) also joined in the condemnation.

He became severely ill during his imprisonment. His wife, activist Eralidis Frómeta, reported that Valle Roca had untreated respiratory problems and wounds caused by the poor conditions in which he was held. She said he was not receiving the necessary medical attention.

Early last month, Valle Roca was released on condition that he leave the country. Valle Roca and his wife were able to leave the island on a flight to Miami, thanks to a humanitarian permit granted by the U.S. government. The permit was processed with the help of the journalist's brother-in-law, who along with three of Valle Roca's siblings lives in the U.S.

Valle Roca says his release was largely thanks to international pressure from press freedom organizations and activists. One month into his exile, Valle Roca spoke with LJR about the struggle that led to his imprisonment and looked ahead from his new home in Lancaster, Pa.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

LJR: How is your health and mood?

Valle Roca: Physically, I'm recovering quickly. Psychologically, it's a lot of things. I'm not sleeping well, I have these mental gaps, sometimes I stutter. I'm sure during the interview you'll notice that I want to say a name, then I forget it, and it doesn't come out.

My lungs and my eyesight are damaged. I have a pinguecula in my left eye. I have some boils on my head. If it weren't for the fuss my wife made outside, making complaints and things like that, they wouldn't have taken me to the doctor. They had to put me on a very strong antibiotic treatment.

LJR: Why do you think the Cuban regime agreed to your release?

VR: My wife and I were too problematic for the dictatorship. So they wanted to get rid of us one way or another. They couldn't decide if it was better for them to kick me out of Cuba or keep me there in prison, under control, until I died in prison and then justify it by saying I had a heart attack or something.

There were many complaints made by the OAS, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and journalism organizations. There were too many complaints and too many protests, too much solidarity with me. I'm truly very grateful. I owe my life to all of you because truly, my friends, the only family I have left are you, no one else. You truly took on that challenge and fought for me.

It seems they [the Cuban authorities] thought about it and said, "Let's kick him out of Cuba because it's creating too much of a fuss." And if I died, it would be worse. It seems they, in their considerations, said, "It's better to kick him out and let him keep talking and causing trouble over there, rather than for him to die here."

LJR: Is it true that you initially didn't want to leave Cuba?

VR: There was a moment when my wife, and the girl [her daughter], and my brothers sent me a message, "You have to leave because you're very sick, and we need you alive for what's to come because this [the dictatorship] has to fall at some point, and things are already at a point where there could be an outcome at any moment."

And then I thought, in short, that the national apostle José Martí, Antonio Maceo "The Bronze Titan," Máximo Gómez, and all those people who liberated Cuba from Spanish subjugation, they had to leave and organize outside of Cuba to return and wage war, to be able to come to liberate Cuba. So, I got into that mindset, I thought and reacted.

Cuban journalist Yuri Valle Roca greets Normando Hernández, director of the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and the Press (ICLEP) at Miami airport.

The journalist was received at the Miami airport by Normando Hernández, director of the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and Press (ICLEP). (Photo: Screenshot from YouTube)

I weighed all that and said, "Yes. Look, my love, tell these people yes." A few days later, my wife coordinated with my brother-in-law and the authorities here in the United States, and it was a big operation to get me out.

They took me to someone’s house, and my wife had already arranged with him to get me online so I could validate [the permit]. They took me back to prison, and a few days later, like a month and change, the permit was granted. That was really fast, the response from here in the United States.

One day, one of the top state security officers came and said, "Let’s go, you're leaving." I was getting a haircut at that moment, and I said, "Well, yes. Let me finish my haircut." I said, "I'm not in a hurry to leave, let me finish my haircut."

LJR: Were there other journalists in that prison?

VR: No, not on my floor, but in the Combinado there were several who were journalists, and many young people who participated [in the protests of July 11 and 12, 2021].

Of the political prisoners on my floor, there were [Ernesto] Borges, Yoel [Prieto Tamayo], [Ramón Pérez] "Moncho," and two or three more. We were on the same floor, but separated, in different cells, and mixed with common prisoners. They put us with common prisoners to keep a closer watch on us, to know what we said, what we did if we talked to each other, because you know how it is with the informants who work for them [the authorities].

LJR: Before your arrest in June 2021, did you already suspect that this would happen?

VR: I suspected it for a long time. For a long time, the political police were making a move to imprison me, to take me out of circulation and keep me in prison so that I wouldn't be on the street causing the problems I caused and making the complaints I made.

They couldn't sentence me to 20 years, which is what they wanted. They found no evidence of any kind because I didn't talk to them. In the interrogations, I didn't say a single word. All I did was stare them straight in the eyes, and they said, "Aren't you going to talk?" And just I shook my head. The only thing I said was, "I want my lawyer present." They never brought my lawyer, so I didn't make a statement because my lawyer wasn't present.

LJR: Do you think your detention was because you were a journalist or because you were an activist?

VR: For me, it wasn't so much about the activism as it was about the journalism. Activism without journalism is nothing. If you don't spread the word about what the activists are doing, there's no awareness. You can make a video or whatever, but it's not the same as how a journalist approaches it compared to an activist. I'm not minimizing anyone, and I don't want to put myself above anyone else – it's just a different focus.

There’s also social journalism, because if you look at my YouTube [channel] Delibera, you'll see many problems of Cuban society, all the suffering, the evictions, the collapses.

LJR: How do you remember your family's relationship with Fidel and Raúl Castro?

VR: Yes, they visited my house, especially on Sundays when my grandfather was home. But my grandfather was always a very humble, very simple, very respectful, very serious, very quiet man. He didn't talk or share anything. He was very discreet.

I saw up close many discussions between my grandfather and Fidel, especially in the run up to the constitution of 1976. I remember my grandfather telling Fidel, “We have to institutionalize the country. We can't have a fundamental law and a provisional government forever.” But Fidel wanted to keep power at all costs and stay in power, which is what he did. He made his maneuvers and put certain things in the constitution, but my grandfather was alone and couldn't do anything. He tried to do something from within and did the best he could, but it didn't work out. So from a young age, I saw all these things.

There were 13 of us in the house, almost all of us kids. And we lived off the ration book [for food]. No special treatment, like the other authority figures who drank whiskey and ate beef. No, my grandfather never accepted any of that. In fact, Raúl Castro once gave him a Jeep, and he sent it back. My grandfather said, “You can't have more than two cars here.” He always kept them at bay. It seems he thought that was the only way not to get the family involved.

LJR: Your family mentioned that they needed you alive to continue their fight for Cuba. How does journalism play a role in that struggle?

VR: Journalism is part of this struggle because we must report all those abuses and outrages committed by the dictatorship. We have to unmask them through our reporting. They are wolves in sheep's clothing, so we need to strip off the sheep's clothing to show people, “Look who they really are, they’re gangsters, drug traffickers, scoundrels.” That's what we have to do, and that's what I've done with journalism.

Although, let me be clear: A journalist's only commitment is to the truth. And a journalist must remain impartial at all times.

LJR: What's next? Do you plan to continue that fight from the United States?

VR: Right now, I don't have any work tools, no money, nothing. I'm figuring out how to start working and how to manage to buy myself a laptop and start working little by little. At least write my articles, and then we'll see.

But the thought of my no longer doing journalism, don't believe it for a second. I will keep fighting.

Translated by Jorge Valencia
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