**This story has been updated.
During 2019, there were more than three thousand arbitrary detentions in Cuba, several of these affecting dozens of independent journalists, activists and political opponents, according to a recent report by the Cuban Observatory for Human Rights (OCDH).
"Last year was characterized by the increase in detentions on public streets without a court order, searches of houses, fines, confiscation of private property, beatings, threats and illegal detentions against human rights activists and independent journalists," the organization said, highlighting the increase in these measures compared to 2018.
Up until January 2013, any Cuban person who wanted to travel outside the country had to request an exit permit. However, even though Cuba relaxed its immigration policy seven years ago, its citizens, especially activists, opposition politicians and journalists face severe restrictions to travel abroad, 14ymedio journalist Luz Escobar told the Knight Center.
"There is no right to move freely within the country," Escobar said.
Escobar, who in the last few months has been affected several times by house arrests and prohibitions of leaving the country, said that these restrictive measures have been exacerbated in the last two years, becoming more arbitrary.
"What used to happen to me twice a year, in the last six months it has happened to me five or six times," Escobar said. “That is, I notice that they have put more focus on my work, and my opinion is that the goal is for me to stop doing what I do, because that is what they told me the last time I had in front of me an official in an interrogation, that the goal is for me to stop doing journalism.”
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), authorities prevented Escobar from leaving the country on May 22, Aug. 19 and Sept. 21, 2019, without any court order or prior notice. Likewise, via Twitter, the journalist has repeatedly denounced that State Security agents have prohibited her from leaving her home.
“It's 24 hours that you can't leave your house, after three days they come back again and they do that to you again but it will pass, and what there is is to have resistance. I think that in the end it is a race of resistance in which you have to have very clear priorities and it is also very clear how far they are able to go. I think that fear cannot defeat us in these cases because it is the objective. The goal is for us to be afraid,” Escobar said.
"It's a less violent way than other ways to exert pressure, to blackmail – to force journalists to talk to the authorities– to ultimately discourage the work of journalists, that's what it is about," Maykel González, co-founder and director of the independent site Tremenda Nota, told the Knight Center.
According to González, this standard of "regulation" of the government is aimed primarily at journalists, activists, politicians, dissidents, but is also reaching more and more people, such as doctors, specialists and even high-performance underage athletes. Another objective of these government regulations is to seek the exile of dissenting voices, the journalist said.
"Soon we will have to make the list of those who are now free to leave the country whenever they want, instead of those of us who are forcibly held in the country," Gonzalez said.
The journalist said that after returning from a trip of several months that began last May after covering a protest of the LGBTI community in the Cuban capital, he was interrogated by police officers at the José Martí International Airport in Havana, where he spent a few hours in custody before being released. Later, when he tried to travel on Dec. 2 to Spain, he learned at the airport that the Ministry of Interior had banned him from leaving.
"I have not only been the victim of a ban on leaving, which affects me a lot, but of a lot of harassment and persecution, of discomfort in everyday life that have really done me much more psychological damage than the exit ban," González said.
In December 2019, in addition to González, the YouTuber and Tremenda Nota collaborator Nelson Álvarez Mairata was also unable to leave the country, according to the Association for Freedom of the Press (APLP) of Cuba. According to the organization, another journalist, Yunior Berges, was interrogated when he returned from Trinidad and Tobago and threatened that he could not return to Cuba on an upcoming trip. Berges had traveled to the Central American country to attend a journalism workshop.
That month, three other journalists suffered house arrest, APLP documented: Camila Acosta Rodríguez of the Writers and Artists Club of Cuba, Iliana Hernández of CiberCuba and blogger Agustín López Canino.
“The State, through its Political Police, plays with this situation. At one point you are ‘regulated,’ but after a few months they suspend the measure, then they impose it again. At the same time, there are some who have never been ‘regulated,’ that can be a strategy to generate distrust,” José Antonio Fornaris Ramos, president of APLP, told the Knight Center.
On the issue of immigration regulations affecting independent journalists and opponents, Cuban Interior Minister Bruno Rodríguez told the Associated Press (AP) at a press conference in October 2019, that it would be necessary to analyze each on a case by case basis to know its justification, as published by CiberCuba.
Abraham Jiménez Enoa, the founder and director of El Estornudo, the Cuban magazine for narrative journalism, has never left Cuba. Jiménez told the Knight Center that he has had a government immigration regulation since 2016, effective until 2021.
“The government decides whether I leave or not. Obviously, I have asked for permission several times and they have said no to all of them, and on other occasions they have not even answered me,” he said. "In Cuba, you never know the express or explicit and clear fact by which decisions are made."
For Jiménez, there are many factors that explain the increase in restrictions against journalists, one of the main ones is the use of and access to the internet on the island. “I believe, one, that on the one hand, the internet is helping to show that other face of Cuba that was hidden for many years, and two, that exactly on the internet, the State has taken the step to increase its repression against opponents, against the dissidents, then, I think that’s how it goes, in those two ways,” he explained.
Jiménez said that in December, State Security agents held him at home. “It was the second time that they didn't let me leave the house in five months. Again we were in an interrogation; they harass and threaten my family, my relatives, the normal things of Cuba. Well, they are not normal, but well, I say, it is what happens in this country when you somehow look into the eyes of the regime. Just for being a journalist,” he said.
In a note that Jiménez wrote in The New York Times for International Human Rights Day, in December 2019, he said that in Cuba there were no differences between an independent journalist and a common criminal. "The detentions and harassment of my colleagues and me in recent months show a resurgence of Cuban policies against press freedom and access to information," he said.
Jiménez has no doubt that he will continue to practice journalism on the island, despite all the obstacles he faces. From there, he collaborates with The New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC, Al Jazeera, Vice, Univisión, L'Internazionale of Italy, Le Courrier International of France, among others.
The digital sites of the magazine El Estornudo, 14ymedio, Tremenda Nota, among many other digital publications of independent journalism in Cuba, are blocked on the island. The only way for Cubans to access their content is through proxy servers, vpn connections, bots via Telegram or WhatsApp and weekly newsletters sent by email.
“I have all my right to do the journalism that I do, and it’s they who are doing something wrong, so that helps me a lot to understand that I have no fault,” Escobar said. “I'm going to keep doing my job, period. I think that keeps me there, quite safe from what is the madness, the stress, what is the insecurity that such situations can give,” he said.
González, meanwhile, said that since Cubans have had greater access to the internet (2014), there is a new air in independent journalism that is done on the island, “after so many decades of silence.” However, investigative journalism, due to the lack of access to official sources and government censorship of critical voices, remains one of the great challenges, he emphasized.
"It is already very, very difficult to give the smallest coverage, or tell the simplest stories. Imagine if we tried to tell the great stories, which, somehow, really compromise areas of power, we would be erased. Deleted," he said.
* The Knight Center tried unsuccessfully to contact the Cuban Ministry of Interior.
**This story has been updated to clarify the affiliation of journalist Yunior Berges.