Cuban dissident Angel Moya, a formerly imprisoned anti-government activist, has been denied a passport despite the country's recent loosening of its strict travel restrictions.
HAVANA – A Cuban dissident who was locked up for years in connection with his political activities said Wednesday he has been denied a passport that would have allowed him to travel overseas under recently enacted travel reform.
Angel Moya, one of 75 anti-government activists imprisoned in a 2003 crackdown on dissent and later released, said he went to file paperwork and pay 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.
The denial suggests that Cuba will still restrict some citizens' right to travel, and casts an element of doubt over the Jan. 14 measure that eliminated the loathed exit visa required of all Cubans seeking to go abroad.
Analysts have called such controls arbitrary and humiliating, though authorities long insisted they were necessary to prevent brain drain. Cuba has routinely denied exit visas for dissidents, who are considered "counterrevolutionaries" in the pay of foreign interests and bent on undermining the communist government.
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 law contains language reserving the right to withhold passports for reasons of national interest and to 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.
However, 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, and some dissident passport requests are being processed.
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.
Blogger Yoani Sanchez, who is not related to Elizardo, also says she has been told she can travel, though on Wednesday she was complaining about a more mundane problem: red tape.
"The long lethargy of bureaucracy in Cuba," she tweeted. "'The passport isn't ready yet, come back next week,' they tell me."
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, Amnesty International formally designated a second prisoner of conscience on the island and urged authorities to free him immediately.
In a statement, the New York-based international human rights monitor 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 of last year.
Amnesty 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 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 International 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, the organization 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 to verify the information about Martinez.
He is one of two Cubans who Amnesty International considers to be prisoners of conscience, along with Marcos Maiquel Lima Cruz, who has been behind bars since December 2010.
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