Life in a Cuban Jail
Cuban reporter Calixto Ramón Martínez Arias, freed in April after six months detention without trial, has spoken of his time in prison, and the poor conditions suffered by fellow-inmates.
Martínez Arias, who reports for the independent news agency Hablemos Press, was arrested in September while investigating allegations that an imported shipment of medicines contained faulty items. He was then accused of a serious offence – insulting Cuba’s past and present presidents, Fidel and Raúl Castro. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience.
No trial date was set, and he was released on April 9, the same day a group of foreign journalists were allowed a rare visit to the Combinado del Este prison where he had been held, although by then he had already been transferred to another jail, Valle Grande. (See Freedom for Detained Cuban Journalist on his release, and Cuba Grants Prison Access on Own Terms on the visit.)
Now feeling “emotionally, spiritually and physically” well, Martínez Arias said warders at the Combinado del Este prison treated him more carefully than they did other inmates.
“It was different in a way, without it being made obvious,” he said. “The guards never physically mistreated me.”
The exception was one officer at the prison, who gave him a hard time.
“There was psychological abuse, but it always came from the same man, a captain who calls himself Coseo,” the journalist said. “He said he was in charge of discipline in the block where I was held. He denied me water on one occasion and often he wouldn’t give me my mattress on time.
“I wasn’t really a target for them [warders] but for State Security.”
Martínez Arias said he was helped by the respect and support that other prisoners showed him.
“Life as an inmate is difficult in every way. As a political prisoner, I felt proud because I knew I was in jail because of my ideals,” he said. “The respect that other prisoners show you these days is different from before, and it makes you feel better… given the hardship you live with in jail.”
While in prison, Martínez Arias mounted three hunger strikes, the first of which lasted 33 days in November-December.
“I sensed the affection and respect that the prisoners held for me. When I ended my first hunger strike, the other inmates in my sector treated me really well. They brought me soup and told me, ‘We’re going to get you better in a week; we’re going to get you as fat as you were before.’”
He added, “The day I was transferred to Valle Grande prison [on April 5], everyone hugged me and wished me success. They told me to stand firm.”
While in jail, Martínez Arias had an opportunity to see the way the average prisoner is treated.
“I had some very difficult and unpleasant experiences… seeing the guards abuse some of the prisoners. I saw how they self-harmed by cutting themselves because they disputed the punishments they’d been given,” he said.
While the Cuban government prides itself on its healthcare provision, that does not extend to the facilities where Martínez Arias was held.
“The medical care in Valle Grande and Combinado del Este is terrible,” he said. “In Combinado del Este… there’s an inmate called the ‘health promoter’ who comes round on Mondays to take a note of who is ill so that they can be attended to over the course of the week. By the time the doctor comes, you may no longer be ill or you might be dead. Prisoners self-harm as a way of demanding medical care. A lack of medicines is a problem – I was taken for a consultation at one point, and the doctor told me the only thing he had was anti-inflammatory cream.”
The case against Martínez Arias does not seem to have been formally dropped. On his release, he was given a document referring to a “change in interim measures”.
Martínez Arias offered an explanation of the Castro insult charges. When he was detained at Havana airport, police accused him of being in the capital “illegally”.
“I told them that if I wasn’t legal in Havana, then Fidel and Raúl Castro must be illegal as well, since they come from Santiago de Cuba. So a day after hitting me and putting me in a cell, the police told me I was accused of showing disrespect for the leaders of the Revolution.”
Asked whether he expected to be detained again, Martínez Arias said, “It’s going to happen again because I am going to continue working and they don’t want a free and independent press. They want to maintain censorship at any price.”
Laura Paz is an independent journalist in Cuba. This article first appeared on IWPR's website.