HOUSTON — Being an independent journalist in the U.S. is a tricky business. We regularly have our ideas and stories stolen from us. Many of us receive near-constant death threats from trolls, racists, and even cops on occasion. While you can compare what we go through to journalists in other countries, it’s rare for a reporter to be sent to prison for doing their job.
That’s what happened to Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca in Cuba last year. Valle Roca has been the target of Cuba’s regime for over a decade. In response to a question during a May 2017 interview about how the government treats him for his reporting, Valle Roca said he’s been beaten, humiliated, jailed, almost killed via poisoning, and even threatened at gunpoint.
Valle Roca is a journalist that typically reports on social issues in Cuba and the day-to-day lives of Cubans. In his own words, taken from the 2017 interview, he describes the focus of his reporting as “the Cuban reality, not the picture the government paints … the picture they paint is that the government provides everything for Cubans, but that’s not how it is.”
In 2016, prior to Barack Obama’s visit to the island, Valle Roca was arrested while reporting on a protest by the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), a group of women seeking the release of political prisoners in Cuba. His arrest was caught on video and broadcast by Voice of America. His detention and that of other protesters and journalists were widely discussed ahead of Obama’s visit.
Last summer he was arrested again for posting a journalistic video showing the release of flyers by a human rights group in Cuba in honor of Cuban revolutionary Antonio Maceo’s birthday. While broadcasting, he described the event with added screenshots showing the content of the flyers. The leaflets contained several quotes from Maceo and Jose Martí, both highly regarded on the island by the regime and the people themselves.
Valle Roca has since been corralled and added to the hundreds arrested for the July 11, 2021 protests and given harsh prison sentences. Valle Roca was sentenced to six years in prison for documenting a seemingly innocuous video. Since then, his wife Eralidis Frómeta, despite her efforts, has struggled to get the attention of people outside of Cuba.
A Message to America
Most of those arrested after last summer’s protests are afraid to talk due to rumors of harsher sentences for those who speak to the media. Others fear that their family members might receive even harsher treatment in prison. Given such concerns, Frómeta’s tenacity is something to behold. Her anger is palpable.
A recent article in the Miami Herald discussed how many of the Cubans charged in last year’s protests had been sentenced to extreme prison terms after their families spoke to the media. Additionally, there are obvious concerns when talking to individuals in Cuba who can be subjected to reprisals by the state.
When asked about her safety, Frómeta replied: “They have already done so much to me that I have lost even my fear.”
After assuring me that she was OK with answering some questions, Frómeta confirmed that her husband’s official charges of “Enemy Resistance and Propaganda” were a result of the three-minute video he posted.
“On June 14, a group of activists carried out an activity in homage to the birth of Antonio Maceo,” she explained. “My husband, the independent journalist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca, was the one who covered that event. The next day he was taken to prison. The enemy propagandas contained phrases by José Martí and Antonio Maceo.”
During his time in jail awaiting trial, Valle Roca went on a hunger strike that lasted 17 days—ending when his kidneys began to fail. His health has since deteriorated due to the conditions in the prison where he is detained.
Asked if she has been able to see her husband, Frómeta says she has been able to visit him but that he is not doing well.
“He is a sick man in jail,” she said. “His state of health is delicate and they do not allow me to give him medicines.”
“[Cuban] prisons are never like in the U.S. You get food twice a day, and it is poorly prepared and spoiled,” she explained. “Here, insects and rodents live together with prisoners. They do not have hygienic conditions. They do not change clothes. They do not even allow relatives to take clean clothes. The medical attention is lousy and there are no medicines. Family members are also not allowed to take them on many occasions. Prisoners on the island live subhuman lives.”
Many Cubans often discuss how the biggest roadblock to regime change is the broad support enjoyed by the regime. Those that stand in opposition to the regime even admit that its popularity is the larger issue.
When speaking to those who have been targeted by the government as Valle Roca and Frómeta have, however, a much different picture comes into view.
“No, those who want this type of reform are those who are committed to the dictatorship,” said Frómeta. “Here, the people want freedom, justice, democracy, and changes without dictators. What do we have in (terms of) power?”
As tensions in Cuba continue to rise and record numbers of Cubans leave the island, many are wondering if the powder keg is about to explode. Despite previous reporting from people on the island that suggests large-scale protests are unlikely, many social media posts suggest the potential for something bigger than a protest as Cuba’s May Day approaches.
While there is very little information to suggest an organized uprising, Frómeta validates concerns about the rising tensions. For her and her family, the situation is more complex than just having access to food and finding ways to counter uncontrollable inflation. There are security concerns for the families of those prosecuted and fears of government repression and arrest.
“Yes, it is tense. We have thousands of prisoners in prison before and after July 11, 2021. Our relatives are being threatened and harassed,” a distressed Frómeta said. “We are fined, taken to cells for many hours, and then given warning letters. We are constantly watched. On many occasions, preventing us from going out to the streets, not even to buy food.”
Despite what we hear from supporters of the regime or its detractors, the prison sentences handed down to last summer’s protesters are exceedingly long. Understanding what the families of prisoners are going through is crucial. And while Valle Roca’s story has gotten some attention in Spanish-language media, surprisingly it isn’t reported in U.S. English-language media.
Assuring Frómeta that this story would be presented to an English-speaking audience, she asks if she could send a message to the people of the United States.
“I would like to send a message to the American people: As many are imprisoned, we as family members are in great danger at the hands of the regime,” she said. “I would like (the American people) to support us by giving this (story) visibility and pressuring the (Cuban) government for so many human rights violations.)
This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by the author.
Arturo Domínquez is a first-generation Cuban American father of three young men, an anti-racist, journalist, and publisher of The Antagonist Magazine. If you’d like to learn more about the issues covered here, follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. You can also support his work here and here.