Reporting on a Death from Cuba, No Easy Task

Foreign correspondents waiting for the announcement about the release of political prisoners. (Photo: Raquel Perez).

Fernando Ravsberg

HAVANA TIMES, Jan 26 — The Death of Cuban prisoner Wilman Villar put us reporters in a dilemma that, while not new, is more dramatic: that of finding out where the truth lies in the midst of a web of political statements coming from both sides.

The opposition informs us that this involves a dissident who died from a hunger strike, while the government denies his act of fasting, saying instead that he was a common prisoner convicted of severely beating his wife.

Many people have begun digging in around these two theories, thus discovering where the truth lies or how much truth there is in each version is a difficult task.

When politics colors everything, the facts fade into the background.

A government official called me to ask my opinion on the Cuban communiqué. I answered with the utmost sincerity that the official version seemed confused and late, but it wasn’t the first time.

I asked him how many political prisoners have there been in Cuba over the last 50 years. He replied saying none, because his government didn’t recognize them as such. Therefore, when they say that Villar didn’t hold that status, they’re not saying anything.

The editorial in Granma newspaper, for instance, accuses other countries of violating human rights, pointing to the US, Chile and Spain. This all may be true, but these claims against third parties don’t explain anything about what happened to the prisoner who died in Cuba.

The death of Villar occurred while he was in custody and it is the authorities responsibility to give an explanation. Photo: Raquel Perez

In this case, the best defense isn’t a good offense, but a good, serious and in-depth investigation with evidence to support each claim – such as photos of the battered wife, medical reports, the court ruling, etc.

The authorities had plenty of time to investigate, it was not a surprise. Well before Villar died there was talk of him being on a hunger strike, and he was said to have been a dissident. However, the government’s adversaries once again reported their information prior to the official media.

There’s a Cuban joke that if Napoleon had had a press like the one in Cuba, he wouldn’t have minded losing the war, because no French person would have learned about it. That may be true, but this is much more difficult to achieve in the Internet age.

Where they stand depends on where they sit

Yet nor can we be wedded to the opposition’s version, because it too is highly politicized. Not long ago they reported of the murder of another dissident in Santa Clara Province, though this was subsequently denied by the family and doctors.

This time dissidents are discrediting Wilman Villar’s mother and sister in advance, warning that they can’t be believed because they are pro-government “revolutionaries” and, supposedly, that would lead them to justify the death of a son and brother.

According to the dissidents, the testimony of the physicians is not valid because they do what the government tells them. Following such logic, we journalists could only believe the opposition’s version with the same faith that the government asks of us.

Admittedly, the dissidents are always willing to give information and provide it faster than the government, while the authorities refuse to grant interviews on these issues even when it suits them, like with the recent pardoning of the prisoners.

But this case involves the death of a Cuban citizen — beyond whatever his ideology or his crimes — who was in the custody of the authorities. It’s therefore their proper responsibility to explain to the family and the nation’s citizens what actually occurred.

Official information published so far (the cause of death, denial of him being a dissident, accusations of spousal abuse and refutation of any hunger strike) are mere statements unaccompanied by evidence to support them.

And finally, everyone is blaming the messenger. A Miami newspaper raised questions about “the apathy of more than one foreign correspondent” around the death of Villar, while the official Granma newspaper is indignant because “Cuba is denied the smallest space in the international media.”

Nevertheless, the mission of a foreign correspondent is not to take sides in political battles, but to report on what happens in these, avoiding manipulations in an attempt to achieve the objectivity and impartiality required by our profession.

An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.

15 thoughts on “Reporting on a Death from Cuba, No Easy Task

  • February 2, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    Hopefully the Havana Times will refrain from suppressing this second attempt to bring to your attention the Associated Press story, “Widow of Cuban prisoner confirms domestic violence,” by Andrea Rodriguez, which was based on an interview with Mr Villar’s widow. This AP story is not hard to find on the internet.

    This interview by the AP reflects a genuine if modest and belated investigative effort which compares favourably with the spoon-fed blather of Mr Ravsberg’s article. The AP story directly refutes basic points of the imperial propaganda account you repeated here, Mr de la Yncera, instead confirming the Cuban government account that Mr Villar was convicted for domestic violence and resisting arrest rather than for any politically motivated crime, that he only joined the US-controlled opposition group after his arrest, and that he was not on a 50 day hunger strike.

  • January 29, 2012 at 11:42 pm

    Mr Gieschen, Your comment concerning the acclaimed ‘Freedom’ in the US ignores the reality of the increasing militarization of the country.

    With Obomber signing the NDDA [which allows unlimited detention of anyone, citizen or not, by the Military] our freedom has gone the way of many other fantasies. We now, officially, have fewer freedoms than most Dictatorships – except for Military Dictators like Pinochet, The Generals in
    Argentina and those stellar examples of Human Rights, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.

    Tourism in Cuba may really boom when the various protesters from Occupy Groups, Earth First, and Peace Groups like the SOA Protesters are declared ‘Supporters of Terrorism’ and shipped off to Guantanamo.

    During my month in Cuba, I didn’t notice heavily armed cops and soldiers, altho I took several photos of both. Those photos show young people in uniform talking and laughing and eying the High School girls in their uniforms. Not nearly as scarey as the cops with assault rifles you see everywhere in that grand Democracy, Mexico.

    As for Freedom of Speech, just about every Cubano I met wanted to talk politics when they discovered I was from the US rather than Canada. The big question was whether I thought Obama would end the Blockade. I had to tell them that I doubted it, even tho at that point he was still promising ‘Change’ and ‘Hope’.

    Even with a mandate, and a large majority in both houses of Congress, all we got from Obama was the same old same old, only worse. Because it was a Democrat tearing down the security of the Working Class it considered ‘Bi-Partisan’, just as it was with Clinton in the 90’s

    Should I mention I am voting the Justice Party this time around?

  • January 29, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    Well Javier literally he was not murdered.
    But let me see.

    He was place in prison not for attacking his wife as the government now claims but because he was part of an opposition group. He was offer a deal either they got out of the opposition group and get free or continue in prison. He refused. He also refuse to eat and his jailers deprive him of cloth to wear to keep warm. This two actions. Not releasing him or not let him have cloth to keep warm or not supplying the medical attention point to the direction of murder. Yes, he was killing himself but they did their best to help him die.”.
    That is why I call it murder.

  • January 29, 2012 at 8:58 am

    Thank you Okasis for the civilised tone of your comment.
    If you as a US citizen want to support a foreign government that is your right and your free choice, but will you grant the same right to support foreign governments to citizens of other countries such as Cuba? “Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently” (Rosa Luxemburg, founder of the Communist Party of Germany).

    you may find it of interest that Amnesty International confirmed right after Mr Villar’s death that they had planned to declare him a prisoner of conscience and were about to launch an urgent action appeal for his immediate and unconditional release.

    In the meantime, and in the interest of humanity may I ask both of you, Mr Cheeseman and Señor Elpides Valdes and everyone else to join me in trying to save Dzmitry Kanavalau and Uladzislau Kavalyo from being executed in Belarus.
    See Havanatimes,.org post Cuba Seeks Internet Control with the Help of Belarus or
    go directly to . Thank you

  • January 29, 2012 at 12:54 am

    julio: he was not murdered, and no one has claimed that he was; so stfu.

    this article is awful. it is the antithesis of journalism. if you are a journalist, go and interview some of the people involved. truth is not an opinion if you know the facts. a journalist will risk life and limb to discover the facts.

  • January 29, 2012 at 12:25 am

    Hubert Gieschen, I cannot have poor Mr. Cheeseman do all the heavy lifting for the first 3 commentators: I too was paid nothing for my comments. Hope this does not depress you too much, but there are many US citizens who support Cuba and its Government wholeheartedly.

    I can only dream of the day we will have a government as concerned for the well-being of the 99% as Cuba’s is. Until then, I can only hope Social Security lasts as long as I do, altho that is beginning to look questionable.

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