Writers cry for freedom

Cuba has more journalists locked up than any other country in the world, other than China

A jailed Cuban journalist whose health is rapidly deteriorating in the face of prison-contracted diseases has been chosen as one of four writers to mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer on 15 November. The special day, held on the same date each year, is organised by PEN, the writers' organisation that backs persecuted authors around the world.

Normando Hernández González was imprisoned in 2003 for reports and broadcasts on the internet and Radio Martí that were said by the government to endanger security. Hernández was found guilty of spying and threatening national security, crimes that carry a 25-year jail term. He was one of 75 journalists arrested in the Cuban government crackdown on the press in 2003 and, according to PEN, remains one of 59 still held by the regime.

He was thrown a glimmer of hope a few months ago when the government of Costa Rica effectively granted him asylum in absentia, launching a plea for his release after reports of a downward turn in his condition.

The move came about after Hernández's mother, Bianca González, appealed to Costa Rican legislators to intervene.

José Manuel Echandi, a former Defender of the Citizens in Costa Rica, answered the call and accused Cuba of torture in blocking the journalist's release.

The Cuban journalist's illness has been partly brought about by a hunger strike he began six months ago, but he has also contracted tuberculosis in prison. Hernández has spent most of the past 12 months in a maximum security prison, but was recently moved to a hospital for treatment.

At Echandi's request, Costa Rica asked Cuba to free Hernández and allow him to be transferred across the Caribbean Sea for health care attention in that country. When they received no response, Echandi wrote to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, to seek help to speed his release.

Press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders is also backing the request that Hernández should be transported to Costa Rica.

"Humanitarian concerns are clearly paramount as regards all prisoners of conscience," the organisation said.

Cuba has more journalists locked up than any other country in the world, apart from China. Those still held since March 2003 are serving sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years.

According to Reporters Without Borders, three journalists held in Cuba were arrested after Fidel Castro's brother Raú took over the running of the country last year.

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, 3 easy steps to save the planet

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.