Cuban journalist released to continue his asylum process in the US after spending seven months in ICE detention center

Thanks to $10,000 in bail paid with the help of his friends in Florida, Cuban journalist José Ramón Ramírez Pantoja was released on parole to continue his asylum process in the United States.

 Journalist José Ramón Ramírez Pantoja in Redondo Beach, Los Angeles. (Courtesy)

Journalist José Ramón Ramírez Pantoja in Redondo Beach, Los Angeles. (Courtesy)

Ramírez was released on Dec. 5 from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Adelanto, California, where he had been detained since June 3. The journalist entered the U.S. on May 8 through the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego after crossing the border with Tijuana, Mexico.

The journalist said he had to leave the island due to death threats he began to receive as an independent journalist. He also had difficulties making ends meet once he was fired from his position as a state journalist.

His hearing to begin his asylum process took place on the same day he was released on parole. Thanks to the support of a close relative, he was able to present a residency address in Las Vegas, Nevada, where his lawyers requested his next hearing to be moved. It should take place in the first months of 2020.

Regarding the fundraising campaign, which went through several stages until he finished gathering the money he needed to pay the total bail, Ramírez said he was very moved.

“For me it was very exciting, I cried a lot. (...) It was a really nice experience knowing I was loved by so many people, even people who do not know me, who sympathized with my cause, that is, with trying to get a person out of a detention center. It is one of the noblest things that can be done in this life,” Ramírez said in an interview with the Knight Center.

Before Dec. 5, his court date was postponed twice. At first, his asylum application hearing was scheduled for Aug. 16, 2019, but due to a 21-day quarantine for chickenpox cases at the detention center, he was unable to attend. The quarantine resumed for several more days, which is why he could not appear in court on the second date, on Oct. 30, as Dagmar Thiel, director of Fundamedios USA, told the Knight Center at the time.

Ramírez said that without the support of organizations such as Fundamedios USA and Human Rights First, he would not have been able to obtain his freedom or apply for asylum.

According to the journalist, Fundamedios USA contacted him with Human Rights First who got him the pro bono help of two lawyers from the firm Covington & Burling LLP.

“They have done an extraordinary job, an excellent job. If I am precisely at liberty today, it is thanks to the work of doctors Morgan E. Lewis and Jeff Kiburtz,” Ramírez said.

According to the Cuban journalist, he had to leave the island after spending more than two years without getting a job as an independent journalist that would allow him to financially support himself, and due to threats against his life. "I left Cuba with immense fright," Ramírez said.

It all started in 2016, when Ramírez was fired from state broadcaster Radio Holguín, according to information from Cuban news site 14ymedio. He was dismissed because he published statements by the deputy director of the historic official newspaper Granma on his Facebook profile and in his personal blog, Verdad de Cuba.

Ramírez was covering a speech by Karina Marrón, the Granma official, at the VI Expanded Plenary Session of the National Committee of the Union of Journalists of Cuba (UPEC), as president of the Holguín delegation, on June 28, 2016. Marrón said at the time that the economic measures that were going to be implemented in those months could generate important social protests such as those of the Maleconazo of 1994, according to Thiel. Ramírez had to erase his publications at the request of his employers, according to what he wrote in his blog. However, The Miami Herald in the U.S. published Marrón’s statements, citing Ramírez’s blog post.

His employers held him responsible for publishing the complete information on his social networks and personal blog without authorization from the authorities.

Months after publishing the statements, Ramírez was suspended for five years by UPEC, which prevented him from working in an official media outlet, according to Diario de Cuba.

The journalist said that in the following months and years he could only work as a collaborator in some independent media outlets in Cuba, until threats and harassment by the authorities forced him to leave the island. “When I decided to become an independent journalist and started working with independent media, it was there that the real persecution and threats began,” Ramírez said.

If his asylum process did not proceed, his return to Cuba would be fatal, Ramírez said. Not only would he have to face a possible smear campaign against him by the authorities, but he would also run the risk of going to prison or losing his life, the journalist said.

“The media in Cuba are tightly controlled by the State and the Cuban people have virtually no access to other media, and what they say to Cubans in the national news or in the Granma newspaper, that's what Cubans literally believe,” Ramírez said. "The government in Cuba fears absolutely nothing, it does what it has to do to sustain that dictatorship," he added.

"It is very sad that for a person to disagree, that for a person not to agree with something, these things happen that are so sad, so difficult and painful, as to a person like me, that I am a professional university graduate," Ramírez said. “That they have to throw me out of my work, that they have to take me out of the Union of Journalists of Cuba, for telling the truth, is shameful. For me it is shameful what is happening with Cuban journalism,” he concluded.