Summary and Current Status
Oscar Manuel Espinosa Chepe is an independent economist. He was arrested on March 19, 2003, after security agents reportedly spent 10 hours searching his apartment. At a trial on April 3, 2003, that lasted only a few hours and failed to meet international standards for fairness, Mr. Espinosa was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was one of approximately 75 dissidents arrested and summarily tried as part of what has been widely described as a massive crackdown by the Cuban government.
Mr. Espinosa was unexpectedly released from prison on November 29, 2004, after serving just over 19 months of his prison sentence. Cuban authorities granted him medical parole because his already poor health had declined seriously during his incarceration.
From 1965 until 1968 Mr. Espinosa worked in the Economic Advisory Group of Prime Minister Fidel Castro. He graduated from the University of Havana with a degree in economics. From 1970 until 1984, Mr. Espinosa was responsible for Cuba’s economic, technical and scientific cooperation with Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Hungary. He served as economic counselor at the Cuban embassy in Belgrade.
In the 1980s, Mr. Espinosa grew increasingly disillusioned with government economic policies. He then went to work at the main office of the National Bank of Cuba where he was in charge of domestic trade and tourism. In 1992, he was demoted after sharing his views with colleagues at the bank. Four years later he was reportedly fired. Shortly thereafter his wife, Miriam Leiva, was forced from her job with the Foreign Ministry as well. Since then, Mr. Espinosa has written many articles, analyses, and commentaries about economic and other matters, most of which have been critical of the Cuban government’s policies and have contradicted official government reports. Barred from publishing articles in Cuba, Mr. Espinosa submitted them for publication in various international journals, as well as in the online Madrid-based daily, Encuentro en la red, and the U.S.-based website Cubanet. For over five years, he also hosted a weekly radio segment, entitled “Charlando con Chepe” (Chatting with Chepe), for Radio Marti, a U.S.-supported station which broadcasts its programs into Cuba. In these segments he reportedly commented on various aspects of the Cuban economy.
Following his arrest in March 2003, Mr. Espinosa was taken to the national headquarters of the State Security Department in Havana. He was reportedly held there—with three common criminals in a cell measuring two by three meters with only a small hole to provide air and light, and a toilet that only sometimes had running water—until his trial, held less than two weeks later. During his detention he reportedly was subjected to frequent interrogation during the day and at night.
On April 3, 2003, Mr. Espinosa was taken to court for his trial. According to reliable sources, he had not been told that his trial would take place that day, and he had no legal representation. Mr. Espinosa reportedly was accused of “activities against the integrity and sovereignty of the State” (actividades contra la integridad y la soberanía del Estado) for allegedly receiving money from abroad, collecting press clippings about meetings between representatives of the United States and Cuban dissidents, and other activities. The Cuban government alleged that it found U.S. $13,600 sewn into the lining of a jacket while searching Mr. Espinosa’s home and that the money came from the U.S. government.
Mr. Espinosa was brought to trial together with several other independent writers. The trial took only a few hours and was closed to the international press and to foreign diplomats. To our knowledge, no credible evidence was produced to support the charges made against him. Mr. Espinosa was convicted for violating Articles 7 and 11 of Law 88 for the Protection of the National Independence and Economy of Cuba (Ley de Protección de la Independencia Nacional y la Economía de Cuba) and for acting against “the independence or the territorial integrity of the State” (Article 19 of the Cuban Penal Code). He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
It is our understanding that Mr. Espinosa appealed his conviction, which was subsequently upheld. His conviction under Cuban law indicates that, in clear violation of its obligations under international law, the Cuban government imprisons its citizens solely for exercising their rights to freedom of opinion and expression. It should be noted that Cuba does not have a record of reversing such decisions on appeal. It is noteworthy that in late June 2003, shortly after the Supreme Court of Cuba confirmed the sentences of 50 Cuban citizens, including Mr. Espinoza, in application of Law 88 and of Article 19 of the Cuban Penal Code, the Personal Representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Christine Chanet, issued an appeal to the president of Cuba urging him to exercise his right of pardon on their behalf.
Mr. Espinosa reportedly suffers from a chronic kidney infection, a thoracic hernia, persistent hypertension, and weight loss, among other ailments. In early April 2003, after several weeks in detention, it was reported that his legs became swollen, his skin jaundiced, and he lost more than 40 pounds. It would appear that this decline in Mr. Espinosa’s health was attributable at least in part to the harsh conditions of his confinement.
On April 18, 2003, Mr. Espinosa’s wife, Miriam Leiva, and niece, Dr. Ileana Prieto Espinosa, visited him in detention. Dr. Prieto is a medical doctor who works at the intensive care unit of Fajardo Hospital in Havana and has overseen his medical treatment for a number of years. After examining Mr. Espinosa, Dr. Prieto diagnosed him with cirrhosis of the liver. Both she and the head of the medical wing of the State Security Department reportedly recommended that he be immediately hospitalized, given his serious condition.
On April 20, Ms. Leiva was informed that her husband had been taken to the Marianao Military Hospital in Havana due to liver problems (afectaciones hepaticas). However, his family maintains he did not receive any medical treatment whatsoever during the three days that he was there. According to his wife, she was told by a military physician at the hospital that he could order a medical examination, but it might not occur because Mr. Espinosa’s transfer to another facility was imminent. She reported further that the medicines she brought to the prison that had been prescribed for Mr. Espinosa by Dr. Prieto were not given to him.
On April 23, despite his medical condition, Mr. Espinosa was transferred by bus to the Provincial Penitentiary in Guantanamo, approximately 900 kilometers from his home in Havana. According to reports, harsh conditions of confinement at the penitentiary include unsafe drinking water and meals that are meager in quantity and consist primarily of rice and split peas. Mr. Espinosa was reportedly held in a cell with 26 common criminals. It is our understanding that while he was in the penitentiary his family visits were limited to once every two or three months. Given the distance between Guantanamo and Mr. Espinosa’s home in Havana, and the vagaries of public transportation in Cuba, it was extremely difficult for his family to visit him.
According to Ms. Leiva, she and Dr. Prieto traveled to the penitentiary in Guantanamo on April 29 and gave the prison warden a summary of Mr. Espinosa’s medical record. They reportedly also met with a doctor there who accepted only some of the medications that they had brought for Mr. Espinosa. On May 22, 2003, the women again traveled to the penitentiary and met with its director. They reported that the director told them that Mr. Espinosa had examined by a doctor and was found to be in “perfect health.”
On May 31, 2003, Mr. Espinosa was reportedly taken to a district hospital called Ambrosio Grillo Hospital to undergo tests for cirrhosis. Available information indicates that after the first test Mr. Espinosa refused to continue because of poor sanitation in the hospital and his fear of contracting infection from the medical instruments. He was reportedly warned that, if he did not agree to submit to the tests, he would be sent to a maximum-security block in Boniato Prison in Santiago de Cuba that houses only political prisoners. Other prisoners refer to this cell block as the waiting room for death (antesala de la muerte). Despite this threat, Mr. Espinosa apparently refused all tests with the exception of one on his colon which involved an enema.
On July 4, 2003, Mr. Espinosa was reportedly taken to the prison. On July 7, Ms. Leiva and Dr. Prieto visited the Boniato Prison and talked to three doctors who informed them that Mr. Espinosa may have hepatic cirrhosis. Then, on July 12, Mr. Espinosa was reportedly again moved from the prison to the Ambrosio Grillo Hospital to undergo tests on his kidneys.
At the end of July 2003, a formal request was made to the judiciary, asking that Mr. Espinosa be granted permission to leave the prison system (Licencia Extrapenal), so that he can be treated at home.
On August 7, 2003, Mr. Espinosa’s health situation reached a crisis point. At 11 p.m. he was flown to Havana to the Security Police ward of the Carlos J. Finlay Military Hospital. There he was held in a tiny cell that lacked running water with several other prisoners. Despite his serious ill-health, while he was at the Military Hospital Mr. Espinosa received family visits about once a month and did not have telephone privileges. (In the same facility, family visits with common prisoners occurred weekly.) Throughout his hospitalization, Mr. Espinosa’s wife and physician, Dr. Prieto, complained repeatedly about the lack of information given to them about his medical condition and the treatment he had been receiving, and expressed concern that he did not appear to be receiving adequate medical care.
After a year at the Military Hospital, on August 12, 2004, Mr. Espinosa was transferred to the ‘Combinado del Este’ maximum security prison in Havana where he was permitted weekly family visits and telephone calls. While at this new facility, Mr. Espinosa suffered from alternating diarrhea and constipation, bloody stools, and a lack of appetite. He was initially diagnosed with and treated for giardia. When his condition did not improve, a colonoscopy was performed in the prison’s clinic on September 23, 2004. The doctors reportedly told Mr. Espinosa that he has severe hemorrhoids and recommended that he undergo surgery, which he chose not to do due to concerns about poor hygiene.
On November 29, 2004, Mr. Espinosa was unexpectedly granted medical parole and released from prison. Cuban authorities reportedly warned him that he would be returned to prison “if he repeated what he had done before.”
During his incarceration, Mr. Espinosa was considered to be a prisoner of conscience.