Castro photos brought fame, forced exile
- From: PL <pl.nospam@xxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Wed, 01 Aug 2007 10:37:30 GMT
Castro photos brought fame, forced exile
After taking two photos showing Fidel Castro's declining health, a photographer faced threats and was forced to leave Cuba.
Posted on Wed, Aug. 01, 2007
BY WILFREDO CANCIO ISLA
El Nuevo Herald
Ignoring official warnings and counsel from colleagues, Cuban news photographer Cristóbal Herrera Ulashkevich showed the world embarrassing photos of Fidel Castro out of professional pride, he says.
As a freelance photographer for The Associated Press in Havana, Herrera captured two crucial images of Castro's health slide: his fainting spell while making a speech in 2001 and his dramatic fall after another speech in October 2004.
The two sets of photos appeared in media around the world, boosting Herrera's professional standing but also putting him on the road to forced exile in Costa Rica -- because security forces did not like his images.
''I am condemned to forced exile,'' Herrera, 36, told El Nuevo Herald. ``The Cuban government barred me from returning to my country, without explanations.''
''We had no other option left,'' he said. ``This is the price for doing photojournalism in Cuba.''
Herrera, his wife and 2-year-old daughter left Costa Rica this spring and crossed the Mexico-U.S. border. They arrived in Miami in May, looking for a better life.
Herrera once worked as a photographer for Cuba's Bohemia magazine, and the AP later hired him as a freelancer in Havana. His first assignment was the Elián González case, and he was later designated to cover Fidel Castro's public appearances.
That's what he was doing June 23, 2001, as Castro delivered a speech in El Cotorro under a scorching sun. He noticed that after three hours of speaking Castro was turning red and sweating profusely, and he snapped the instant he fainted.
OTHERS MISSED OUT
Most photographers there missed the shot. Herrera says another photographer there urged him not to send his photos abroad ``for the good of his family.''
State security agents approached him as he left the site and also urged him not to transmit the photos to AP headquarters in New York, Herrera said. But he refused. ''It was a very tense moment,'' he recalled. ``In the majority of cases the correspondents bow and follow the recommendations of the security people. But on this occasion they found a half-crazy and romantic youth, with more professional pride than common sense.''
Luckily, he had transferred five of the fainting photos from his digital camera to his laptop, he says. When he got to the AP office in Havana, he ''mysteriously'' lost about 600 other photos he had snapped that day. ''When I transmitted the photo I told the AP people in New York that if something happened they should find me a job in Serbia or Afghanistan,'' he said.
From that moment on, the international media began following the aged Castro's steps more closely. And the Cuban leader's personal security detail began tightening controls on foreign correspondents. Live TV broadcasts of Castro's events were put on a 10-second delay, to be able to edit out embarrassing moments.
INJURED IN FALL
Then came Castro's fall just after a speech in 2004, which left him with a shattered kneecap and broken arm.
''Most of the photographers had left to transmit their images as soon as the speech ended,'' Herrera said. But he had stayed and caught Castro's fall, along with two other photographers. One was a veteran photographer in the official news media. The second, a photographer with a foreign news agency, consulted with the security agents at the event and opted not to publish them, he added.
''The security agents jumped on me, but I told them what I had was out of focus, nothing good,'' Herrera recalled. ``I didn't move from there to avoid raising suspicions, then on the way out I managed to transmit from the laptop in some bushes . . . [another photographer] protected me by pretending that he was urinating.''
Government officials who handle the foreign media banned him from covering further high-profile events, Herrera said. And his criticism of the Cuban system grew. ``I couldn't stand Fidel Castro or [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chávez; their speeches sounded to me like mocking the intelligence of the people. And watching [Foreign Minister Felipe] Pérez Roque was like attending the performance of a lying clown.''
One morning in December 2004, two men approached him on the street and suggested he should take a vacation abroad, Herrera said.
''It was clear that [the government] didn't want me there and that I had no alternative but to leave,'' he said. ``The paperwork and the red tape were processed at once, which clearly told me where the order came from.''
Herrera and his wife went to Costa Rica on Dec. 23, 2004, and he began working as an AP photographer for Central America and the Caribbean until March 2005, when he tried to return to Havana to fill an AP job slot that had opened.
But the Cuban government refused to issue him the permit he needed to return to Havana, he said. His daughter was born in Costa Rica.
Herrera now has a photo project in hand that could again anger the Cuban government, a collection of about 600 photos from daily life in Cuba, titled Hard Cuba, that underline conditions on the island.
''It is an attempt to demonstrate the surrealistic nature of communism in Cuba,'' Herrera said. ``It is not only a professional ambition but also a personal effort to understand my roots and the attitude of my parents, a Cuban father and a Russian mother who live in Cuba and continue to defend communist ideas, although to different degrees.''
Herrera's photographs can be seen at www.cristobal herrera.pintarte.org
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