Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the release of Cuban journalist Roberto de Jesús Quiñones Haces from a year in prison on Sunday, calling Havana “disgraceful” for punishing the writer for covering religious persecution on the island.
Police imprisoned Quiñones on September 11, 2019, for attending the trial of Pastor Ramón Rigal and wife Ayda Espósito, charged with homeschooling their children to prevent the state from indoctrinating them with Marxism. Homeschooling in any way is illegal in Cuba and both Rigal and Espósito spent two years and a year and a half, respectively, in prison for the crime of “acts against the normal development of a minor.”
Police arrested Quiñones, who writes for the independent outlet Cubanet, at the Guantánamo court where the trial took place for his presence at the trial in an attempt to write about the lack of due process and violation of the rights of the parents to teach their children the family faith of Protestant Christianity. Police fined Quiñones, but he refused to pay, resulting in a conviction on charges of “disrespect” for the state, a crime in Cuba. Authorities sentenced Quiñones to a year at a labor camp, but he refused to go willingly, resulting in his imprisonment at a conventional prison facility.
After a year in prison, the Communist Party released Quiñones on Friday. The journalist said that he would continue practicing his profession without fear but noted the toll that the sentence had taken on his body, estimating he lost about 30 pounds in prison. He also said police officers told him the Communist Party would soon release a compromising video of him, without explaining its contents, if he did not stop writing.
“The U.S. Government is gratified to see independent journalist Roberto de Jesús Quiñones reunited with his family after a year of undue suffering as a prisoner of conscience in Cuba. However, we repeat our strong condemnation of his unjust imprisonment for the simple act of doing his job,” Pompeo said in a statement on Sunday.
“His detention and trial were marked by the flagrant disregard for legal norms, which is typical of the Cuban regime. Cuban authorities did not inform Quiñones of the charges against him until minutes before the trial, and did not permit him legal representation in the courtroom,” Pompeo noted.
“It is disgraceful that the Cuban regime incarcerated a journalist whose only ‘crime’ is working for a more transparent society. It is also unsurprising,” Pompeo concluded. “The regime uses any excuse to silence its critics and to violate human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and to fair trial guarantees. We call on our democratic partners across the globe to make respect for human rights a prerequisite for any dealings with Cuba.”
In a video recorded an hour after his release on Friday and posted to Cubanet, Quiñones detailed the horrors of Cuban political prison and condemned the regime for failing to provide safe-to-eat food and nearly all health care.
“I’ve been lucky of being imprisoned twice … despite the suffering, I have grown as a human being on those two occasions. Today, I leave prison much stronger,” Quiñones said, “a prison where officials occasionally, instead of trying to alleviate the pain of inmates, exacerbate it. The food is a horrible food, the health situation is deplorable because doctors do not have medicine.”
Quiñones asserted that he did “not regret anything” and did not fear any retribution for continuing to practice journalism.
“They are going to have to kill me if they want to, but I will keep being congruent with my ideas,” the journalist promised. “I am an independent journalist because I exercise a right recognized in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and that is my will, and that is what I will keep doing.”
Quiñones said a guard at his prison told him that Cuban state television would soon nationally broadcast a compromising video, the nature of which he did not divulge. He said he did not object to the video and did not yield to blackmail.
“They will not rob me of my happiness because God wants us to be happy and to face life as it comes to us,” Quiñones said in the video. “We all each have a cross to bear and nobody else can carry my cross. That cross is mine. It belongs to me. I have to carry it and I have to face and I have to respond for my actions.”
Quiñones wrote in detail about his experience in prison for Cubanet while still behind bars. In March, at the height of panic surrounding the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, Quiñones described a harrowing state of affairs in prison: crowded cells, little to no medical care, and extremely poor nutrition, including rotting and maggot-infested food.
“On Friday, January 31, for example, I told Captain Ofraine Freinier Lescaille, the head of the prison, that the food and breakfast — boiled rice powder — was of terrible quality and showed him three maggots that I found in the food,” Quiñones narrated. “Although he began by admitting that there were problems with the food, he ended up justifying it by claiming the difficulties were due to ‘President Donald Trump’s intent to starve the Cuban people to death.'”
The communist Castro regime regularly blames sanctions on senior Cuban officials and the general, but often bypassed, embargo on trade with Cuba for all its failings. The food shortages endured for years, however, are a greater product of the swift decline of Cuba’s ally Venezuela and poor socialist management of farms and ranches. Quiñones asked in his article, noting this, “what does the embargo have to do with the food everybody knows is rotting in the prison warehouses? What does the embargo have to do with expired products like toothpaste or with the maggots and weevils we find daily in the food they serve us?”
The international press freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders ranked Cuba the least free country in the Americas in its annual list published in April and 171st in press freedom among all the world’s countries. The few nations ranked less free than Cuba were almost all Cuban diplomatic allies and nearly all communist or socialist, like China, North Korea, Laos, and Eritrea.