As Abraham Jimenez Enoa walked his 3-year-old son home from kindergarten, two men sidled up beside them.
“We know you are near your home,” one of them said.
The experience shook the exiled journalist, who says he decided to leave his adopted city of Barcelona for a while after the encounter in July.
Despite being expelled from Cuba last year for writing what he says is the truth about the country’s communist government, Jimenez Enoa says he has been targeted by unidentified men in Europe, including in Madrid and Amsterdam.
Each time, the men spoke with Cuban accents.
The journalist, who writes for The Washington Post, said he believes those targeting him are Cuban agents.
Members of his family were senior military figures, so Jimenez Enoa once lived a cushioned life at the heart of the Communist Party establishment. His family had close ties to the late Fidel Castro and Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara.
The 34-year-old turned his back on this life to forge a career as an independent journalist.
Neither the International Press Center in Havana — a government agency that handles media queries — nor the Cuban Embassy in Madrid replied to requests for comment from VOA about Jimenez Enoa's allegations.
Jimenez Enoa, like other dissidents who flee hostile regimes, says he is a victim of “transnational repression,” a tactic in which governments target critics outside their own borders.
Freedom House, which has been monitoring the phenomenon, says there were 854 verifiable incidents from 2014 to 2022, which included abductions, assassinations and attacks. Of these, 11% involved journalists.
Journalists in exile are targeted because they reveal uncomfortable facts about what is going on in their own countries — information that their governments do not want to make public.
China, Egypt, Russia, Turkey and Tajikistan were involved in the largest number of cases, according to Freedom House reports. China has been involved in 30% of the incidents, it said.
Jimenez Enoa believes the incident in July was an attempt by the Cuban government to intimidate him. He told VOA the two men approached him and said they knew where he lived.
“I didn’t know who said it. There were lots of people around,” he told VOA in an interview in Barcelona. “I saw two men who were laughing to themselves. They were dressed as Cuban diplomats [with a shirt and tie], then they went.”
Jimenez Enoa, who published The Hidden Island, a book about Cuba, said he was also followed at a book fair in Spain’s capital in May.
“At the book fair in Madrid, during the whole day, there was a man watching me and filming me. He did not say anything. Someone I spoke with said they had spoken to him and they said that he had a Cuban accent,” Jimenez Enoa recalled.
In March of last year, at a meeting in the Netherlands, Jimenez Enoa came face-to-face with a man he believes was a Cuban agent.
"A man started to offend me, saying everything I did was a lie. He continued to offend me. The organizers had to get him out of the place,” he said. “A diplomat [later] showed me a picture of the man and said he worked at the Cuban Embassy in Holland.”
Of his three encounters in Europe with what he believes were Cuban agents, the last incident was most disturbing, he said.
“I was with my son, and it was around the corner from my house. Each time these people had Cuban accents,” he said.
Jimenez Enoa said he did not report the incidents to the Spanish or Dutch police because he did not have any evidence to present.
The Committee to Project Journalists, which in 2020 honored Jimenez Enoa with an International Press Freedom Award, has called on Spanish authorities to investigate and ensure his safety.
The experiences are unsettling because Jimenez Enoa fled Cuba to avoid threats after enduring a campaign of harassment.
“I was put under house arrest; my phone was bugged. I was later arrested, handcuffed, strip-searched and questioned by security officers. Then they secretly filmed me and put my image on television, claiming I was a CIA spy,” he told VOA in an earlier interview.
“Later, they telephoned me and said I had to leave the country, or they would put me in prison and ‘terminate’ my family and the family of my wife.”
His family also paid dearly for Jimenez Enoa’s chosen profession. His father, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Ministry of the Interior, was forced to retire early. His sister, a captain in the ministry, also lost her job.
For a while his relatives were distraught at the way their lives had been torn apart and would not speak to him. Now, the family has reconciled.
Grady Vaughan, a Freedom House research associate, said exiled journalists are targets for authoritarian governments because they are still seen as a threat even though they are no longer living in their home countries.
“I think the main motive [behind why Jimenez Enoa] and others are targeted is that journalists act as whistleblowers to inform their people about things which their governments do not want coming out,” Vaughan said in a telephone interview. “They share uncomfortable facts about things which are going on in their homeland. Opposition figures and insiders are also targets.”
In May, two Cuban activists, Lucio Enrique Nodarse and Emilio Arteaga Perez, were attacked, allegedly by supporters of the Cuban government, when they staged a demonstration at a concert in Madrid, Vaughan said.
Spanish police did not act on the incident because they did not receive a report. The Cuban Embassy declined to comment.
Javier Larrondo, president of the Madrid-based Cuban rights group Prisoners Defenders, told VOA he believes the international community turns a blind eye to the cross-border pursuit of journalists.
“The persecution and threats of the Cuban regime against independent journalists are fearsome and their effects are lethal since they manage to carry out the threats by arresting them, abusing them, torturing them while the voices of the world’s democrats remain silent as if the matter were not important,” Larrondo told VOA.
“The silence is such that that even gives room for harassment operations to also take place outside of Cuba. We feel solidarity with Enoa, who has experienced real threats in Spain.”