Ivan Garcia, 3 May 2016 — One morning in 1996, the poet and journalist, Raúl Rivero, Director of the press agency Independent Cuba Press, called me at home in Víbora, to ask me to cover the trial of a dissident in a municipal court in Cerro.
The reporter, Ariel de Castro Tapia, (presently living in Turkey) and I were to write up a statement after the judicial ruling and read it on the Radio Martí news broadcast at noon.
“Improvise, but the news has to go out,” Rivero told me, haltingly. There were many problems. At that time, there were no cell phones or Internet rooms in Cuba, and Twitter and Facebook were the stuff of science fiction.
The trial was attended by agents of State Security. We verified the number of a public telephone from which, although we couldn’t communicate directly with Radio Martí, we were able to establish a point of connection.
We called Rivero so he could inform the broadcasting station, and with the number we gave him Radio Martí communicated with us every half hour. A source inside the trial came out at each break and told us how things were going. A few minutes after the ruling was read, we went on the air with Radio Martí News.
We did all this with only a notebook and a pen. Necessity generates creativity. Like many independent journalists in the ’90s, I took notes by hand and then cleaned them up on an old, Soviet-era typewriter.
Once, a European journalist gave his laptop to Cuba Press as a gift. Raúl Rivero decided that my mother, Tania Quintero, Ariel and I – we all lived near each other in La Víbora – would share it. But the novelty brought us a problem.
At that time, State Security had unleashed a spectacular hunt for computers. Around 10:00 in the morning of June 2, 1997, agents of counterintelligence, commanded by an official who identified himself as Pepín, tore apart the house in search of the laptop.
They didn’t find it. By foresight, we had hidden it somewhere else. We decided to return the laptop to Raúl Rivero and to continue using the typewriter. Once we edited our notes, we read them from a fixed line.
Until Fidel Castro’s raid in March of 2003, when he imprisoned 75 peaceful dissidents, among them 27 reporters, the texts of independent journalists were read by telephone, and collaborators in Miami posted them on websites.
In spite of harassment from the political police, the arrests, acts of repudiation and threats, we wrote from our own perspective about that other Cuba that the regime wanted to hide, without any fuss or pretensions to heroism.
I give this personal anecdote as an example of the fact that you don’t always need sophisticated computer or audiovisual equipment to do journalism in Cuba, one of the worst countries in the world for the profession.
Of course, with good tools and monetary backing, you can do a better journalism, above all, outside Havana. The reality of the capital isn’t the same as that of Villa Clara, Las Tunas or Guantánamo.
But you can do high-quality work with just a few resources. If there is any doubt, just read Periodismo de Barrio (Community Journalism), a project begun by Elaine Díaz, ex-professor of the Faculty of Communication at the University of Havana, who, with a part of the money she received from a scholarship at Harvard, is creating wonderful Cuban journalism.
Today there’s a boom in free journalism. Whatever its bias or format, the independent press is enjoying good health. Havana Times, On Cuba Magazine and El Estornudo (The Sneeze) and El Toque(The Touch) are some examples of alternative media. And several publications specializing in sports, fashion, art and cooking circulate on the Internet, all Made in Cuba.
There is also a more committed journalism, openly anti-Castro, which supports a real democracy, like Primavera Digital (Digital Spring), managed by Juan González Febles and edited by Luis Cino, one the best ungagged journalists. They don’t mince words. They call the Castro Regime a dictatorship, and they don’t turn away from criticizing the dissidence either.
High-style journalism costs money. But the reporters for Primavera Digital stopped receiving money from Switzerland two years ago, and they continue publishing a weekly without one cent coming from the exterior.
Yoani Sánchez administers 14ymedio, a daily whose articles present a balanced point of view. Dagoberto Valdés directs Convivencia (Coexistence) in Pinar del Río. And in almost every province there is some dissident media.
In a parallel manner, audiovisual journalism is taking steps. Ignacio González, Claudio Fuentes and Augusto César San Martín figure among its best exponents.
Ignacio is a man of many talents. Hyperkinetic and creative, he has an online review named En Caliente Prensa Libre (In Caliente Free Press). He has just created a debate program named La Ventana (The Window). And he is thinking about the release of a news website.
There are now more alternative journalists, women and men, who write freely. At the present time, around 300 reporters work for independent media or foreign newspapers.
The quality has improved. Specialists have surged in subjects like economics, history or politics such as Arnaldo Ramos, Orlando Freyre Santana, Osmar Laffita, Miriam Celaya or Dimas Castellanos. Young people like María Matienzo, Yusimí Rodríguez, Marcia Cairo, Ana León, Adriana Zamora, Luz Escobar and Lourdes Gómez perform “street” journalism.
In the sphere of investigation, Elaine Díaz and her group of reporters in Periodismo de Barrio (Community Journalism), and Waldo Fernández Cuenca, author of a book that details how Fidel Castro’s censorship against the press began, do more exhaustive reporting about Cuban society. Others, like Regina Coyula, collaborate with the international media.
There are many challenges and difficulties, mainly from the State, which continues to control the flow of information with an iron hand. The political police still harass and blackmail alternative journalists to keep them from working. Because of these pressures and threats, many have left Cuba, opting for exile.
When you look for the nations with the least freedom of expression on the world map, Cuba is colored red, belonging to the countries with the least press freedom.
Of course the State hasn’t actually killed any journalist. They kill them in another way. They convert them into state reporters, scribes and ventriloquists. Or they try to recruit them as snitches.
Alternative journalism still has some room to maneuver for its growth. We’re always going to be at a technological disadvantage, and we can’t compete with the foreign agencies for “scoops.” Our strength lies in telling stories from another context and showing the variety of opinions that exist on the Island.
One piece of advice for Cuban journalists: Don’t throw away your old typewriter (I still have mine). In an autocracy like Cuba, you never know when you might need it.
Translated by Regina Anavy