Being a journalist in Cuba is like performing black magic. Investigating a story or getting reliable data is like trying to catch hold of a mirage. With a faltering voice, people whisper information to you that there is no way of confirming. I will give examples.
Having some drinks one hot night on the balcony of his house, an employee told me all about a dark, corrupt plot between the government and a foreigner at the firm where he works.
The following morning, now sober, I asked him if he would let me publish his story. He was frightened. “Please, remember that this business is my livelihood. If you write about this, I will be the first suspect, so, definitely no,” he told me.
It also happens with people who phone you to supposedly give valuable information. After agreeing to an appointment, in a park or central location in the city, what happens next seems like a mediocre espionage film.
The subject wears dark glasses and makes you walk three blocks. “Now bend, sit on a bench, stand, buy a Granma newspaper and wait in the coffee shop on the corner,” he’ll tell you wearily and automatically to your back.
Then, after he has vomited up his story, it seems so fantastic, it makes you laugh out loud. A pure conspiracy theory. “If you want me to write a line of this, you have to give me something more than just storytelling,” I say incredulously.
He promises to get videos. I haven’t heard from him again. It has a bad smell. Perhaps because of an agent of the political police. Once, a woman who worked as a maid of a famous person told me about the extravagant and wasteful life style of her master.
When I say that I would quote her using another name, she panics. “If the police question me, I’ll say you invented all this,” she says indignantly. Others think that a journalist is a blank check. “If I tell you what I know, how much would you pay me?”, they inquire with a greedy look.
And there are people for whom all legal options have been closed and they resort to dissident or independent journalists, to provide them a greater impact for their cases.
Sometimes they are navel-gazing. The story might be trivial. Such as creole squatters, evicted to live in empty houses. Or someone who wants to accuse the head of the union of their factory, who has been granted, by favoritism, a microbrigade apartment (built by the workers). The man thinks he deserved it instead.
At the other end of the scale of obstacles to working as a reporter in Cuba are the government agencies. Any request for data raises suspicion. I phone an office, to find out what percentage of whites and blacks there are on the island. The questioning begins: Who are you? Why would you want this data? Who authorized it?
In March this year, I went to Cardenas, the home of Elian Gonzalez, the former child rafter, now a military school cadet. I tried to interview him, and then I was hounded with questions. One of his guards said I had to get a paper signed by a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, or by the first party secretary in Matanzas or Havana.
Everything is too difficult in Cuba. Eating breakfast, lunch and dinner. Arranging a house. Transferring by bus around the city. But being a journalist is almost impossible. Still, I try.
Translated by: CIMF