Two Cuban dissidents who applied for passports to go overseas under recently enacted travel reform reported mixed results Wednesday, as one former prisoner was turned down while prominent blogger Yoani Sanchez excitedly tweeted a photo of her brand new, bright blue travel document.
“The called me at home to say my passport was ready! They just delivered it!” Sanchez wrote on Twitter. “Here it is, now the only thing left is to get on that plane.”
By her own account Sanchez has on some 20 occasions been rejected for the much-detested exit visa that for decades was required of all islanders seeking to go abroad. Analysts have called such controls arbitrary and humiliating, though authorities long insisted they were necessary to prevent brain drain.
That requirement ended Jan. 14 when a new law took effect scrapping the permit known as the “white card,” which Cuba routinely denied to those it considers “counterrevolutionaries” in the pay of foreign interests and bent on undermining the communist government.
But the case of Angel Moya, who was locked up for years in connection with his political activities, indicates that Cuba intends to exercise a legal clause by which it retains the right to restrict some citizens’ right to travel.
Moya, one of 75 other anti-government activists imprisoned in a 2003 crackdown on dissent, said he went to file paperwork and the $50 application fee to request a passport, but a clerk turned him down.
“She told me, after consulting a database, that I was restricted and it couldn’t be processed for reasons of public interest,” Moya told The Associated Press.
Moya said the office clerk showed him her computer screen and the file did not contain a specific reason why he was not allowed to apply for the travel document. But the travel law contains language reserving the right to withhold passports for reasons of national interest and for people with pending legal cases, and he’s sure that’s affecting his situation.
Moya’s release from prison was conditional and technically he’s still serving a 20-year sentence for treason that expires in 2023. The rest of the former prisoners from the 2003 crackdown, like a number of other dissidents with legal issues, presumably could be in the same boat.
“Their release is very precarious,” said Elizardo Sanchez, who monitors and reports on human rights on the island.
Other government opponents including frequent hunger striker Guillermo Farinas have explicitly been told they will be allowed to get passports and come and go freely.
Moya’s wife Berta Soler, a leader of the Ladies in White protest group, said as far as she knows she’s still scheduled to pick up hers on Feb. 8.
“I’m happy and sad: On one hand I have my document to travel, but several friends like (Angel Moya) will not be allowed,” Yoani Sanchez wrote.
Government officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Havana usually avoids mentioning the dissidents at all except to accuse them of being traitorous “mercenaries.”
Also Wednesday, human rights group Amnesty International formally designated a second prisoner of conscience on the island and urged authorities to free him immediately.
In a statement, Amnesty said Calixto Martinez was detained for his work reporting for the non-governmental news agency Hablemos Press and has been held without charge since Sept. 16, 2012.
The rights group said Martinez was arrested at an airport while looking into whether anti-cholera medicine provided by the World Health Organization was being held there. He supposedly took photographs and interviewed people there.
Cuban airports are highly sensitive, well-guarded facilities, and journalists generally are barred from reporting there without special permission.
Last summer’s cholera outbreak in eastern Cuba was also a sensitive subject for the island, which relies on tourism as one of its main sources of foreign income. Authorities say that it was contained, and that another outbreak this month in Havana is under control.
Amnesty said Martinez was accused of “disrespect” for authorities, which is a crime in Cuba. The relevant legal statute has commonly been used as justification for the detention of dissidents.
Cuba contends that it does not hold any political prisoners.
When the last of the 75 arrested in 2003 walked free under a deal brokered by the Catholic Church, Amnesty said at the time that there were no more inmates it recognized as prisoners of conscience, though rights monitors complain that authorities have adopted a tactic of more short-term detentions to harass dissidents and impede their activities.
Cuba has long maintained nearly complete control over the island’s media, and Hablemos Press has occupied a murky legal gray area.
“The imprisonment of Calixto Martinez goes to show that authorities in Cuba are far from accepting that journalists have a role to play in society, including by investigating possible wrongdoings,” said Guadalupe Marengo, deputy Americas director at Amnesty International.
In a recently released press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Cuba dropped four spots this year to 171st out of 179 countries — ahead of only Vietnam, China, Iran, Somalia, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.
There have been some signs of opening, however. In 2011, President Raul Castro urged state media to be bolder with more “objective, constant and critical” reporting.
The Catholic Church is allowed to publish its own independent magazine, Palabra Nueva, bloggers are openly critical of the government and state TV recently began carrying programming from Venezuela-based Telesur news channel.
Amnesty has strict criteria for how it designates prisoners of conscience. One requirement is that the person not have a history of violence.
In an email to the AP, Amnesty noted the difficulty of accessing independent information in a tightly guarded society such as Cuba. It acknowledged talking to government opponents and other rights groups, but said it conducted its own investigation into the facts of Martinez’s case.
He is one of two Cubans who Amnesty considers to be prisoners of conscience, along with Marcos Maiquel Lima Cruz, behind bars since December 2010.