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.
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.