Must Read: Death of a Dissident

Saturday, February 4, 2012
By Yoani Sanchez in The Huffington Post:

Wilman Villar Mendoza: The Death of a Dissident

The punishment cell is narrow, is five feet wide by two long, cold and there is not even a blanket for cover. From the hole in the floor that serves as a toilet, a rat occasionally emerges and looks curiously at the curled up man lying there. Outside shouts are heard, metal banging, and the general noise of the Aguadores prison, one of the most feared in eastern Cuba. This scene, common in our prison system, was repeated in early January and was had as its protagonist a young man of 31.

He was called Wilman Villar Mendoza and was arrested on November 14, 2011 while participating in an anti-government protest in the streets of Contramaestre, his hometown. In images broadcast after his death, he is seen at the head of a group carrying the Cuban flag, while the astonished passerbys do not know whether to join the crowd or to shout down the demonstrators. Probably the memories of that place passed through his head again and again while he shivered within the damp walls of the dungeon, but that we can never confirm. Because of that place he would only emerge -- already dying -- to the hospital and finally to a grave in the cemetery.

Villar Mendoza, the prisoner who recently died of a hunger strike, made a living doing carpentry and masonry work. His specialty was the most slender and beautiful wooden flowers that tourists buy as souvenirs to remember this island. A stalk and six petals carved with the patience of one who knows that time is not worth much in Cuba, the minutes will not bring him anything more successful or happier. He gave form to a piece of cedar, shaping it for hours and hours, brooding with that frustration that is always greater among the youth of the province.

In September 2011 this sense of social unrest led him to join the opposition group Patriotic Union of Cuba. According to the official propaganda, he was a common criminal who had even "brutally" beaten his wife in July last year. But too many witnesses, including his own wife, suggests that such insults are only trying to kill his image after the death of his body.

In Cuba, in the words of a friend, "nobody knows the past that awaits you," because criminal records of citizens are also determined by their political behavior. As there is no separation of powers, as the judicial system is not independent of the party branch, those whose ideology falls short will find it reflected in their criminal records.

Generals have been known to have shoot their mistresses, ministers caught in million dollar embezzlement schemes, children and their fathers involved in various crimes that have never been brought before a court. But when it comes to an opponent of the regime, it is enough to have bought milk on the black market, quarreled with your wife, or parked your car badly, to be taken as a culprit.

The Criminal Code does not include any section for "political offense," so that the "inconvenient" are always charged under another section. Which is what happened to Wilman Villar Mendoza, who resisted police arrest on July 7, 2011 after a domestic incident. Purely by "coincidence" he would only be prosecuted for this case four months later, when he participated in a protest against the government. On arresting him, an officer shouted in front of several witnesses: "now we'll make you disappear," and they did.

The practice of turning activists into criminals is nothing new. In February 2010, when Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after 85 days without food, Raul Castro said publicly that he was a common criminal. He had forgotten that seven years earlier in the book The Dissenters, prepared by pro-government journalists to justify the imprisonments of the Black Spring, Zapata Tamayo appeared with photo, name and surname. Playing with history and rearranging it tends to create these contradictions... since no government has ever been able to predict "what the future holds."

Fortunately, a criminal record can not explain all of the attitudes that a man comes to take in his life. To present Villar Mendoza only as a choleric husband who beat his wife does not explain why he was left to die without food. To accuse him as a common prisoner seeks to reinforce the Manichean idea as that in Cuba there are no decent people, patriotic and law-abiding, who are also opposed to the government. Hence the flood of insults that have rained on the memory of the deceased and the official interest used his civic activism as a way to "clean up" some criminal past.

A recent editorial in Granma asserts that there was no hunger strike. It does not explain, however, how someone only 31 years old deteriorated so rapidly in two months of confinement to the point of dying in a hospital from "multiple organ failure." There is also the testimony of relatives and friends who visited Villar Mendoza in jail to convince him to eat again, but could not get him to stop repeating "Freedom or death!"

To disprove the official version, there are also numerous reports of fasting that appeared in news media in exile and Twitter accounts of local activists since mid-December. The Internet shows what the Cuban press hides.

According to the statement of Maritza Pelegrino, her husband ceased to feed himself on November 24 when he was sentenced to four years imprisonment. He interrupted the strike on December 23 because his jailers made him believe that he would be in the list of prisoners pardoned by General Raul Castro. But he returned to starvation six days later in finding out that all those promises were just lies, dirty tricks.

Tied up and naked they then put him in the punishment cell where he contracted the pneumonia that would kill him. He arrived at the hospital on January 13 and doctors warned the family that only a miracle could save him. Less than a week later he was no longer breathing.

Wilman Villar was killed by the late medical intervention and neglect of those who should have watched over him in prison. A system that has cut off all peaceful, civic and electoral paths for citizens to influence national course killed him. He was turned into a cadaver by a judicial apparatus riddled with irregularities and ideological preferences, where a political opponent is held guilty of any crime with little chance to prove otherwise.

It was not just the lack of food or water that caused the sad outcome of January 19, but having to use one's body as a public square of indignation, on an island where protest is prohibited.

At his death, Wilman Villar Mendoza had two daughters, aged five and seven years. Their mother still does not know how to explain to them what happened.

ALBA Backs Iran's Nuclear Program

Worth taking note and caution.

From the Islamic Republic News Agency:

Venezuelan ambassador: ALBA backs Iran’s nuclear program

Venezuelan Ambassador to Tehran David Velasquez said on Saturday that the foreign ministers of ALBA including eight Latin American and Caribbean countries in their meeting on Friday issued a statement in support of Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.

He made the remark on the sidelines of a special ceremony marking the the 20th victory anniversary of Venezuelan revolution, on Saturday.

ALBA has developed to include eight Latin American and Caribbean countries (Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines).

How (Not) to Break Up a Monopoly

Friday, February 3, 2012
Chronicling his recent trip to Cuba, New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin concludes:

Cuban military leaders and other connected families are getting rich under the status quo through black-market gasoline, monopolies and government contracts. Any opening with America could doom their scam.

Based on what backwards economic theory?

How does providing Castro's monopolies access to the largest market in the world "doom" them?

To the contrary -- it would dramatically increase their wealth.

It's like arguing that Standard Oil's monopoly could have been broken up by even further increasing its market share and restrictive practices.

If this is illogical in a democratic system of laws, then it's absolutely absurd in a totalitarian dictatorship of selfish decrees.

Chambers of Commerce Do Not Promote Democracy

Last month, we expressed concern about a growing trend by the Treasury Department of licensing Chambers of Commerce under the so-called "people-to-people" travel category.

This is such a farce.

By definition, Chambers of Commerce are business entities.

They do not promote democracy or humanitarianism -- as is the supposed intent of President Obama's Cuba policy.

However, this doesn't seem to faze Treasury.

Here are two more from this week:

Communists and capitalists take note: The Portland Business Alliance is offering members the chance to visit Cuba, a nation long difficult for Americans to experience.

The Montana Chamber of Commerce is offering Montanans the opportunity to travel to Cuba this fall. They've teamed up with a travel company that's authorized through the Department of the Treasury to legally take people to Cuba.

The Cyber Threat (From Our Backyard)

Thursday, February 2, 2012
From CBS News today:

Today, FBI Director Robert Mueller told the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that he believes "the cyber threat will equal or surpass the threat from counter terrorism in the foreseeable future."

A concerning admission, for as we posted last December:

Univision aired an investigative documentary, “The Iranian Threat,” which presented well-documented information, including videos, audio recordings and interviews showing a conspiracy involving the governments of Iran, Venezuela and Cuba to launch cyber and other attacks against U.S. territory, specifically against the FBI, CIA, NSA, Pentagon, The White House, and various nuclear power plants.

Rousseff’s Shameful Sojourn in Cuba

By Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations:

Rousseff’s Shameful Sojourn in Cuba

The President of Brazil has been visiting Cuba this week. It should not be necessary to remind anyone that Brazil itself lived for years under a military dictatorship, or that Cuba is one of the few remaining dictatorships in this hemisphere. It would have been reasonable to expect some slight sympathy or solidarity for the people of Cuba, especially when human rights abuses there are so awful. It is only a matter of days since the death of political prisoner Wilmar Villar at age 31. He had been jailed for the crime of paticipating in a demonstration. Such is life in Cuba.

But President Rousseff did not utter one word criticizing human rights abuses by the Cuban regime. The Wall Street Journal reported on what she did while in Cuba.

"During Tuesday’s visit, Ms. Rousseff criticized the existence of the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, where terror suspects are held, and the U.S. trade embargo, which she said contributes to poverty on the island….She declined requests for meetings by Cuban dissidents, and has said she won’t press the Castro brothers on the island’s human-rights record."

“Human rights aren’t a stone to be thrown from one side to another,” she said in Havana on Tuesday. This week, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said human rights aren’t an “emergency” issue in Cuba.

Really? They were an “emergency” issue for Wilman Villar. To express Brazil’s solidarity with the dictators, to indulge in cheap criticism of the United States, and to ignore the suffering of those struggling for freedom in Cuba, add up to a shameful performance by Ms. Rousseff and the government of Brazil.

(More) Female Activists Beaten and Arrested

Yesterday, the Castro regime brutally assaulted, beat and arrested seven female pro-democracy activists in the city of Santa Clara.


Because they "dared" to peacefully march on the street asking for the release of two political prisoners, Yazmín Conlledo y Yusmari Álvarez.

The seven female activists brutalized and arrested are Damaris Moya Portieles, Idania Yánez Contreras, Yris Tamara Pérez Aguilera, Xiomara Martín Jiménez, Yaité Diosnelly Cruz Sosa, Yanisbel Valido Pérez and María del Carmen Martínez López.

If such violence against peaceful female activists is completely unfathomable to you, please watch the following video of the Castro regime's agents literally sweeping by the home of Ladies in White member Mayelin la O last week and dragging her away:

Senate Passes Resolution Honoring Wilman Villar

Last night the U.S. Senate unanimouly passed the following resolution:

S.Res. 366 (Sen. Menendez and Rubio): A resolution honoring the life of dissident and democracy activist Wilman Villar Mendoza and condemning the Castro regime for the death of Wilman Villar Mendoza.

Click here to read the resolution.

Business as Usual in Castro's Cuba

Wednesday, February 1, 2012
By Jose Cardenas in Foreign Policy:

A death in Cuba exposes business as usual

Sadly, the tragic death of another Cuban dissident hunger striker will not change conditions in that island-prison nor provoke governments to reassess their historical indulgence of the Castro regime's crimes. Business as usual will continue.

In fact, this week, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is in Cuba promoting business opportunities for Brazilian companies. She plans no meetings with Cuban dissidents.

But the Jan. 19 death of 31-year-old dissident Wilman Villar Mendoza will not be in vain. Indeed, when decent people arrive in Cuba to pick through the rubble left by the most oppressive regime this hemisphere has ever seen, his sacrifice -- and that of thousands of Cuban martyrs before him -- will be rightly honored on Cuban soil.

But if there is one immediate purpose that the tragic death of Wilman Villar can serve, it is to put the definitive lie to the currently fashionable meme that Cuba, under Raúl Castro, "is changing."

For example, according to the Associated Press, Cuba just wrapped up a "dramatic year of economic change." The BBC informs us, "Cuba expands free-market reforms," while Reuters adds, "Cuba to free 2,900 in sweeping amnesty."

Frankly, the only thing sweeping Cuba these days -- besides the ongoing state repression -- is the hyperbole in foreign correspondents' dispatches.

I have dealt with Cuba's smoke-and-mirrors reforms in this space before, but to briefly summarize, all interested observers need to know about Cuban "reforms" are two things:

They signify no new recognition of the inalienable rights of the Cuban people by the regime. "Allowing" a few new bits of heavily circumscribed individual economic freedoms is hardly indicative of fundamental change. The relationship between state and citizen remains the same -- although instead of controlling 100 percent of the economy, the regime will now control 99.5 percent.

Secondly, recent changes are not meant to reform the system but to save the system. Allowing Cubans to repair children's dolls outside the purview of the state does not mean Cuba is on the road to a free market; it means the regime is looking for new ways to generate revenue through confiscatory taxes of limited private economic activity.

Raul Castro himself serves as the best spokesman that the regime is not contemplating any kind of fundamental reform. Speaking recently at a party conference, he said, "There has been no shortage of criticism and exhortations by those who have confused their intimate desires with reality, deluding themselves that this conference would consecrate the beginning of the dismantling of the political and social system the revolution has fought for more than half a century."

To be sure, the hyperbole surrounding recent changes in Cuba has an ulterior motive. It is meant to apply pressure on U.S. policymakers to make unilateral changes in U.S. policy, because Cuba is ostensibly "reforming." Thankfully, the Obama administration so far hasn't taken the bait. In fact, last September, the President took the matter head-on, saying, "They [the Castro regime] certainly have not been aggressive enough when it comes to liberating political prisoners and giving people the opportunity to speak their minds."

Indeed, at a time when no quarter is being given to undemocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, the suggestion that the U.S. should lessen pressure on an undemocratic regime ninety miles from our shores strikes a wholly discordant note and is unlikely to be entertained by any serious policymaker. The Cuban people deserve no less than what the peoples of those regions deserve: the freedom to live their lives as they see fit. Clearly, that concept was as alien to Muammar al-Qaddafi as it is to the Castro brothers -- which is why they deserve the same fate.

U.S. Citizen Arrested During Family Visit

U.S. Citizen Held in Cuba

Cuban-American family man is wrongly accused and detained.

Miami, FL - Jose-Ramon Darias Tarrago, a 50 year old Cuban-American construction supervisor and family man who recently travelled to Cuba to assist his terminally ill father-in-law, has been wrongly imprisoned in Cuba, falsely accused of falsifying documents. He has been detained since January 16th. Darias has a wife and 15 year old son in Miami.

On January 14, 2012 Darias travelled to Cuba to accompany his terminally ill and wheel-chair bound father-in law, Osvaldo Soto Bacallao, on his return flight to Cuba after a 2-month visit. Upon their arrival in Cuba on Saturday, January 14, 2011, Darias was detained at Havana International Airport and questioned by Cuban immigration officials for approximately 2 hours regarding alleged involvement in providing false documents to a person named “Yurislaides” (or a similar name). He repeatedly informed Cuban officials that he did not know anyone by that name, was then released but warned that he must remain available for further questioning.

On Monday, January 16th, Darias returned to Havana International Airport to board his return flight to Miami on Sky King. His nephew, who resides in Cuba, saw him enter through the doors to check in. The Cuba flight arrived in MIA at 5:05 p.m. but U.S. Customs officials confirmed that Darias never boarded the flight.

Darias’ family in Cuba was advised that he was detained in Villa Marista and was being investigated for falsification or trafficking documents to Cuba. On January 30th, he was transferred to a cell in Camaguey, located in central Cuba and far away from his family.

"My husband has done nothing wrong. He is a law-abiding family man who was doing a good deed by accompanying my terminally ill father on his return to Cuba" says Vivian Darias. She adds, "Cuban authorities are unjustly detaining my husband who has been falsely accused."

Darias suffers from high blood pressure and only took enough medication for three days.

Jose-Ramon Darias Tarrago has lived in exile with his family since 1995, when he won the Visa Lottery. He is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Darias’ mother and siblings reside in Havana, Cuba.

Today on "From Washington al Mundo"

Tune in today to "From Washington al Mundo" for a discussion on the effects of foreign policy on the 2012 Presidential election with former New Hampshire Governor and White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and with the brain trust of Florida politics Justin Sayfie of the Sayfie Review.

"From Washington al Mundo" is broadcast live on Sirus-XM's Cristina Radio (Channel 146) from 4-5 p.m. (EST).

From the Director of National Intelligence

Tuesday, January 31, 2012
From today's "Worldwide Threat Assessment of the United States Intelligence Community Cuba" by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper:

Cuban President Raul Castro has begun a delicate, cautious process of reform designed to revive the island's flagging economy without loosening political control. With a weakening Hugo Chavez as their primary patron, Cuba's leaders are desperately seeking to diversify their foreign investment partners and increase their access to hard currency and foreign credit. Wary of instability, authorities are only gradually implementing economic reforms announced last year. For example, the delay in the planned layoff of a million state workers reflects the sensitivity of the Castro regime as it observes uprisings elsewhere in the world.

Cuban leaders are also concerned that economic reform will increase pressure on them for a political opening and greater individual rights. The stiff prison term imposed on USAID subcontractor Alan Gross for facilitating uncensored internet connectivity demonstrates the Castro regime's fear of social media. Indeed, harsh government repression of peaceful protests and an upswing in short-term arrests of dissidents suggest economic changes will not be coupled with political changes.

At this writing, we anticipate that the 28 January 2012 Communist Party conference will emphasize the importance of technocratic competence, rather than party membership, underscoring Castro's stated focus on improving government bureaucracy and expertise. There is no indication that Castro's efforts, including his stated interest in laying the groundwork for a generational transition in leadership, will loosen the Party's grip on power.

Amnesty: Brazil Should Support Cuban Activists

Wishful thinking, but an important challenge posed to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

From Amnesty International:

Brazilian Government must defend the rights of Yoani Sánchez, Cuban blogger and all other dissidents, journalists and human rights activists

The news that Brazil has issued a visa for Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban blogger and human rights activist, to visit the country for a film festival is an important step in recognising her right to freedom of movement. The Cuban authorities must now grant her permission to travel to Brazil to attend the screening of a documentary by Brazilian documentary-maker Dado Galvão in Jequié, Bahia State, on 10 February. The film features the story of Yoani Sánchez and other bloggers.

Amnesty International is calling on the Brazilian government to intervene with the Cuban authorities so that Yoani Sanchez is given permission to travel freely to and from Cuba. On 20 January 2012 Amnesty International wrote to Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota, calling on the Brazilian government to intervene in this case and to discuss human rights violations in Cuba.

President Dilma Rousseff will be visiting Cuba on 31 January 2012. Amnesty International urges her to raise Yoani Sánchez’ case with the Cuban authorities as well as the issue of freedom of expression, association, assembly and movement which is of serious concern. The case of Yoani Sánchez and her visit to Brazil gives the Brazilian authorities an opportunity to engage on those issues with the Cuban government.

The Cuban authorities continue to severely restrict the freedom of expression, assembly, and association of political dissidents, journalists and human rights activists. Dissidents, journalists and human rights activists are subject to arbitrary house arrest and other restrictions to prevent them from carrying out legitimate and peaceful activities. In addition, the Cuban government is using the denial of exit permits as a punitive measure against government critics and dissidents.

Amnesty International trusts that President Rousseff will use her upcoming visit to Cuba to reinforce Brazil’s increasing global influence in the promotion and protection of human rights.

Dilma's Convenient Memory Lapse

In 1970, now Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was arrested and tried (see picture below) for her armed opposition to that country's military dictatorship (1964-1985).

Yet, today, she's unwilling to meet or show solidarity with peaceful opponents of Cuba's military dictatorship during her visit to Havana.

To add insult to injury, Rousseff's foreign minister, Antonio Patriota, stated regarding the human rights situation in Cuba:

"There doesn’t appear to be an emergency in Cuba. There are other situations that are very worrisome, including Guantanamo."

We'd like to remind the Rousseff Administration that the International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Torture have unfettered access to the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo.

Meanwhile, the Castro regime has not allowed either of these international observers into Cuban prisons in its 52-year rule.

Moreover, it's fascinating how Rousseff sensed the emergency regarding human rights in Brazil during its military junta, which inexcusably imprisoned, executed and exiled tens of thousands of Brazilians -- numbers stymied by the brutal Castro dictatorship in Cuba.

Economic Relief for Political Absolutism

Here's the reality of the China model that Cuba "experts" extol -- it's simply a means for the Castro regime to survive its current political crisis through economic "reforms" ("relief")

From Financial Times:

As China marks the 20th anniversary of Deng’s history-changing tour, the most ironic fact – and perhaps China’s worst-kept secret – is that pro-market economic reform in China has been dead for some time. [...]

Because of its powerful investment-driven growth momentum, China has managed to keep economic growth high in spite of the lack of reform for a decade. Of course, the country has paid a huge price, such as huge structural imbalances, chronic inefficiency and poor sustainability.

One may be tempted to blame leadership failure for the premature demise of China’s reform. While this is certainly a cause, a far more critical factor is more responsible: the CCP’s political objective of reform is fundamentally incompatible with a market economy.

No one understood why China needed to reform its economy better than Deng himself. In 1992, as in 1978, He knew that only market-oriented reforms could save the CCP. Although Deng was sure about the political objective of his reforms, he never explicitly endorsed a capitalist market economy as the end goal. Here lies the fundamental flaw of China’s reform project: as long as pro-market reforms are used as a means to preserve the political monopoly of the CCP, such reforms are doomed to fail.

First, since reform is crisis-driven, its achievements are bound to, paradoxically, reduce the pressure for continuing the reform. The moment the CCP’s rule is more secure due to improved economic performance, its ruling elites would lose incentives for further reform. That is why during the previous decade we observed the phenomenon of growth without reform.

Second, the CCP is no ordinary ruling party. It is a sprawling political patronage system filled with self-interested individuals eager to cash in their political investments. The conversion of political power into economic privileges and profits is far easier in an economy heavily controlled by the state than in a more market-oriented one. As a result, the interests of the ruling elites are in conflict with the imperatives of market reforms. Seen from the opposite angle, this logic illuminates the systemic cause of China’s “crony compitalism” – the marriage of power and wealth is made possible only when a post-communist autocracy is in charge of a half-reformed economy.

Quote of the Day

"We need to figure out what we can do to inflict maximum pain, maximum punishment, to bleed Repsol of whatever resources they may have if there's a potential for a spill that would affect the U.S. coast."

-- U.S. Rep. David Rivera (R-FL), told a Congressional subcommittee regarding Repsol's offshore oil drilling partnership with the Castro regime, Reuters, 1/30/12.

How Odebrecht Abets Castro's Repression

Monday, January 30, 2012
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is heading to Cuba this afternoon, but has already made it clear that she will not meet with pro-democracy activists -- nor criticize the Castro regime's repression.


Because her trip is on behalf of the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht and its multi-million dollar expansion of the Port of Mariel.

Moreover, she will sign a new agreement with the Castro regime to help Odebrecht revitalize Cuba's sugar sector.

Thus, any criticism of the Castro regime's brutal repression could jeopardize Odebrecht's business interests in Cuba.

Meanwhile, Miami-Dade County's Mayor and Commission continue to funnel billions worth of Cuban-American taxpayer money to Odebrecht.

Absolutely shameful.

No Political Reforms in Cuba, Period

Yesterday, at the closing of a Communist Party conference, Cuban dictator Raul Castro stated unequivocally that he had no intention of voluntarily undertaking political reform and allowing a democratic, multi-party political system to flourish.

As famed blogger Yoani Sanchez noted, "there are no political changes of any kind in Raúl Castro’s words. It was a bucket of ice water for those who hoped for openings."

However, Castro didn't want to leave his foreign "experts" and the media without any talking points, so he "promised" support for a limit of two five-year terms for dictators in the future, but said it would require lengthy "legal changes."

Apparently, it'll be a very "complex" process in which Raul will decide who to appoint as the new dictator when (if) he turns 91-years old in 2022.

Today on "From Washington al Mundo"

Tune in today to "From Washington al Mundo" for an exclusive foreign policy interview with former Massachusetts Governor and Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

"From Washington al Mundo" is broadcast live on Sirus-XM's Cristina Radio (Channel 146) from 4-5 p.m. (EST).

The Castro News Filter

Sunday, January 29, 2012
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal:

Cuba and the Castro News Filter

Investment companies that provide market analysis are required by law to disclose potential conflicts of interest that could bias their reports. Imagine if media outlets were forced to do the same with stories filed from inside Cuba's military dictatorship. Their disclaimers might read like this: "This report was prepared under psychological duress, threat of loss of journalistic credentials, imprisonment or expulsion from the country, and while being spied on 24-7."

Tourism, aka "cultural exchanges," out of the U.S. to the island is on the rise, leading some observers to conclude that the dictatorship is kinder and gentler than it used to be. But all visitors, and those they interact with in Cuba, are as carefully watched as they were in the first days of the revolution. In the news business, reporters are not permitted to travel freely, and it is verboten to damage the image of the Castro government. Penalties can be severe.

This reality came to mind last week when we learned of the death of another dissident at the hands of the regime. Thirty-one-year-old Wilman Villar Mendoza, who was arrested in November, had been on a hunger strike for at least 50 days. His imprisonment was part of a wider wave of state repression that has been under way for more than a year amid a rising number of public protests, particularly by young people.

Yet while Raúl Castro's announcements about "reform" have made headlines and topped television news around the globe, we had hardly heard of Villar Mendoza or the resistance movement he belonged to.

Apologists for the status quo will tell you that Cuba's democracy movement is not news because the number of Cubans who would rebel given the right encouragement is insignificant. But if Cuba is an island of contentment, why do the Castro brothers go to such lengths to make an example of dissidents like Villar Mendoza and pressure local news bureaus to ignore the repression? There is a reason journalists who want to stick around know they'd better find something else to write about.

Villar Mendoza's case was especially hard to learn about because he lived in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba. The east is one of the most repressed areas of the county, perhaps because it is where, historically, uprisings in Cuba have originated. Now, despite the tight grip, it is again becoming the hotbed of antigovernment protests, united by a coalition known as the Eastern Democratic Alliance. But since there are no embassies there and reporters may not leave Havana without permission, the magnitude of the eastern rebellion is not recognized by the outside world.

The story has gotten out thanks to Cuba's independent journalists and human-rights advocates, operating on a shoestring and at great personal risk. They use cellphones and sometimes computers when they can sneak under the radar. They've reported that on Nov. 14 Villar Mendoza was beaten and arrested for his part in a peaceful protest march in his hometown of Contramaestre. Ten days later, in a summary trial, he was sentenced to four years in prison. When he was refused an appeal, again without due process, he began a hunger strike. His jailers at Aguadores prison responded by stripping him, throwing him in a dank solitary confinement cell, and denying him water. He came down with pneumonia and died of sepsis.

Given the history, the account sounds plausible and gains credibility from the regime's intensive damage-control efforts. The Castros allege that Villar Mendoza was a common criminal. This is standard procedure: In fact the regime claims there are no "political" prisoners in Cuban jails—only criminals.

Former Cuba correspondent for Spanish Television, Vicente Botín, describes how hard it is to report the truth from the island in his 2009 book "Funerales de Castro." He reminds readers that in 1997 Fidel expelled a French journalist for writing that Cuban chickens were not meeting their government egg-laying quotas. In 2007, the regime withdrew the credentials of three foreign correspondents from the Chicago Tribune, the BBC and the Mexican daily El Universal for lack of "objectivity." "The three journalists were scapegoats used to warn their colleagues in the foreign press of the dangers they run if their 'objectivity' does not coincide with that of the government," Mr. Botín notes.

Sebastián Martínez Ferraté didn't fare so well. In 2008 he used a hidden camera to document Cuba's epidemic of childhood prostitution, and the report aired in Spain. When he returned to the island in 2010, he was arrested and sentenced to 17 years in prison. Spain only recently negotiated his release.

As Mr. Botín explains, the regime goes out of its way to make sure that journalists know that they are being watched and no one working in Cuba is under any illusion about a free press. Yet when foreigners watch "news" from the island they are likely, through force of habit, to put their trust in the messenger. Maybe the news organizations should start running that disclaimer.