Life in Exile for Latin American Journalists
The afternoon of March 19, 2003 is seared into the memory of Cuban economist and independent journalist Alfredo Felipe. That was the day government officials invaded his house in Artemisa, a town 60 kilometers west of Havana.
“A horrible circus,” Felipe recalled, in a recent phone interview from his current home in Austin, Texas. “They took my books, all my books, an important number of books. They took my papers, a typewriter from the year 1929, a tape recorder — all those things that are useful to transmit ideas. Those were the weapons they were looking for.”
Felipe was one of 75 opposition figures rounded up that spring. Some were doctors. Others were journalists whose underground writings opposed the regime of Fidel Castro – and landed them in jail. After seven years, Felipe was released and sent into exile. In 2012, he won political asylum in the U.S. where he now gathers research for a book he’s writing about “the inconsistencies of Fidel Castro,” he said. “Well, not his inconsistencies, because to call them that would be an euphemism, but about his crimes.”
Felipe is part of a statistic, updated annually by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. According to a CPJ report released last June, 32 Latin American journalists have gone into exile since 2010. Most are from Cuba (18) and Mexico (8), while three journalists each have fled from Colombia and Ecuador.
Though the Latin Americans are not the largest exile population in CPJ’s annual census, they share many of the hardships and characteristics of other journalists forced to flee their homes for safety. Asylum claims can take years to process – and though asylum brings a measure of security, it does not provide a living or any guarantee that the journalists will ever be able to work again in their chosen profession.
Here are some of their stories from exile.
Emilio Palacio of Ecuador
“They persecuted me in various ways,” said Emilio Palacio, who left Ecuador and was granted asylum in 2012 after being sued and threatened by Rafael Correa’s government for an editorial in El Universo, Ecuador’s second largest newspaper. “I came not only for the case of El Universo, but for an accumulation of all the persecutions that are still there waiting for me and that if I ever return will put me in jail.”
In 2011 Palacio worked as the paper’s opinion editor. In the editorial that prompted his flight, he denounced President Correa’s order to police, to fire into a crowd of civilians during an anti-government protest the previous year. Correa sued El Universo for defamation, and a few months later Palacio quit. When a judge ordered Palacio to prison for three years and a payment of $30 million, he fled the country.
In February 2012, after much pressure from international media and press freedom organizations, Correa withdrew the lawsuit and the fee for the journalists of El Universo.
But that is not enough to convince Emilio Palacio to return to Ecuador with his wife and their three children. Palacio said he is now unemployed and lives solely from what’s left of his savings and the income he receives through his webpage, emiliopalacio.com, which is also the only means he has to express his opinion. His wife and his older son, who also attends college, have to work to help support the family, and they have all had a hard time adapting to the economic struggles of the transition. He said he still fears that if he ever returns to Ecuador, authorities will find other excuses to put him in jail.
“I still get threats,” he said. “They did it to me every day and they continue to do it every day,” referring to personal threats he has received from president Correa himself in public television, and twitter threats that he receives daily from various sources.
Alejandro Hernández Pacheco of Mexico
In the summer of 2010, Alejandro Hernández Pacheco was kidnapped in Durango, Mexico, with three fellow journalists, by members of the Cartel del Pacífico (the Pacific drug cartel). Pacheco said he survived for five days on a piece of bread, a piece of chicken and a few glasses of water, before the cartel released him. He said he decided to leave Mexico because even after his release, armed men – not policemen, according to his neighbor – continued to patrol outside his house.
When they first arrived in the U.S., Hernández Pacheco, his wife and two children landed in El Paso, Texas, where his aunt helped him find small temporary jobs as a gardener and house painter. He applied for political asylum, which was approved in late 2012, and found work as TV cameraman in El Paso.
“You know what fills me with anger, that they tore us away from our country, because of the impunity and violence in México,” he said in a phone interview from Denver, Colorado, where he now works as a cameraman for a local TV station. “That they tore us away from our house, which was small, but had its little garden and belonged to us. We left that, our family, everything; we arrived with a suitcase.”
José Hernández of Venezuela
José Hernández also fled his home country, Venezuela, after his family received threats. He was working in Venezuela’s office of international relations as head of communications when a fellow journalist told him his nine-year-old son might be in danger.
Threats came from people who pressured him to use his governmental position to influence then-president Hugo Chávez. The situation just felt unsafe for him and his family, so he decided to take off to the U.S.
“The hardest part of the transition is that the transition never ends,” said Hernández, who now edits newspaper Diario Las Americas, a Spanish-language paper and news-site based in Miami. “It’s like suffering in installments. Even if you’re physically settled, if you have a house, if you’re well, spiritually you feel a hole.”
Alfredo Felipe of Cuba
In Cuba’s Guajamal prison for men Alfredo Felipe spent a year in solitary confinement.
“I would only see the guard when he came to bring me dinner,” he said. “It’s terrible. A terrible psychological torture. Staring at the roof and the walls all day long.”
From Guajamal, Felipe was transferred to another prison, where conditions were so bad, he said, that inmates would cut their eyes with razor blades or inject AIDS, with smuggled injections for which they paid for with boxes of cigarettes, into their own blood, hoping to be moved to another prison with better conditions.
After seven years, in which international groups and the local activists of Damas Blancas (White Dames) campaigned for his release, Felipe and 74 other prisoners were released and sent to Spain. In 2012, he and his family moved to Austin, where they now live.
Like many other journalists in exile, Felipe hasn’t been able to work in his profession. He said that he and his wife both receive federal disability support in the U.S. – Felipe for throat cancer and his wife for a back injury. Together, he said, their monthly income of $1,100 is way below the official U.S. poverty level.
According to Nicole Schilit, program associate in the Journalist Assistance Program at CPJ, the group’s statistics on journalists in exile only include those who have reached out to the organization for assistance. And of those, she said, only 17 percent are able to continue practicing journalism in exile.
CPJ’s journalist assistance program generally focuses on aiding threatened journalists and their families within their home countries, noted executive director Joel Simon. Once they’ve left their homeland, it is more complicated to provide safety, not to mention jobs and other benefits. “In most cases our goal is to keep them alive,” he said.
Though they may be safe in exile, many of the journalists remain concerned about the lack of press freedom back home.
“For me journalism is like the swelling of the human body,” said Jose Hernández of Venezuela. “Without swelling and pains, the place where crisis are happening acquire gangrene, and sadly have to be amputated, or the organism dies, is corroded and dies.”