A top Cuban journalist faces a 15-year prison sentence for spying, just two years after Raúl Castro issued an unusually public praise for his exposé of a scandalously botched public works project, according to reports.
José Antonio Torres was the correspondent in eastern Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city, for the newspaper Granma, the official voice of the ruling Communist Party, until his arrest in February 2011.
Prosecutors sought the 15-year sentence on a charge of espionage during a court hearing in mid-June, according to a post Wednesday in the Spain-based blog Diario de Cuba — Cuba Diary — which first reported the Torres case in March of 2011.
Dissident Jose Daniel Ferrer said prisoners he met in April in a Santiago police station during one of his frequent detentions arrests had told him that Torres was being held in Aguadores prison on the outskirts of the city and had been charged with spying.
Torres told fellow inmates that he was innocent and remained a staunch government supporter, Ferrer said. His wife turned down offers of assistance from Havana human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez.
Diario de Cuba noted that its unidentified sources reported Torres had sent a letter to the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana “showing an interest in providing information about military objectives” and “high officials … to whom he had access.”
Other reports have indicated Torres was arrested in a corruption probe or in retaliation for his July 2010 report on a botched aqueduct construction project in Santiago. Cuba’s state-run news media, including Granma, have never reported on his arrest.
His 5,000-word report listed a string of blunders in the massive project, used strong words like “mistakes” and “bad job” and quoted Vice President Ramiro Valdés, who supervised the project, as saying that the situation was improving.
Castro attached a personal note to the end of the Granma report praising Torres, by name, “for his steadfastness in following this project … I believe this is the spirit that must characterize the Party newspaper, to be transparent, critical and self-critical.”
The Castro postscript also praised Valdés, widely reported but never officially confirmed to have clashed with Castro many times when he was minister of the interior in the 1960s and 1970s and Castro was minister of defense.
“I ratify my praise for compañero Ramiro Valdés for the way in which he has been carrying out the control and requirements of this project.” Castro wrote.
Granma’s introduction to the postscript noted Castro read the report before it was published and told the newspaper to omit the names of the national and provincial officials mentioned in the Torres report “except for those of … Valdés and Inés Chapman,” at the time coordinator of the aqueduct project.
That decision, Granma added, was taken “because the majority of them pointed out errors that happened but were not self-critical, even though they were the ones responsible for the shortcomings in the execution of the project.”
Four months later, in November of 2010, Torres wrote a story on the laying of a fiber-optic cable from Venezuela to Siboney Beach near Santiago and noted that Valdes, at the time also minister of information and communications, was supervising the work.
The cable project has been marred by reports of corruption. Valdés was replaced as communications minister in January of 2011. The announcement of his departure said he been named to supervise the ministries of communications, construction and hydraulic resources.