Ivan Garcia, 19 March 2018 — On a mid-February day in 2003, a month before the repressive wave against the Cuban dissidence, sometime after 9:00 in the morning it took me almost an hour to board Route 100 bus, which at that time started its route at the corner of Diez de October and O’Farrill, in La Víbora, and ended in the Nautical district in the municipality of Playa.
Public transport, unaddressed by the regime, was chaotic. My destination was the house of Ricardo González Alfonso, on Calle 86 between 7th and 9th in Miramar, in the west of the capital, to deliver a couple of notes that would later be published in the magazine De Cuba, prepared entirely in Havana.
I had 40 pesos in my pocket: 20 to return to La Víbora in a private taxi and the rest to buy a pizza for lunch. The trip on Route 100 involved a lot of shoving and bad language. I got off at the Comodoro Hotel stop, at 3rd and 84th, and bought a Neapolitan pizza from a privately run snack bar just before 5th Avenue.
I then continued on my way to Ricardo’s home, a sort of itinerant newsroom for Cuba Press, the most professional independent press agency in Cuba, directed by the poet and journalist Raúl Rivero.
Ricardo was a good guy. Demanding with regards to the work, he was always on the journalists to deliver two weekly articles. His house was also used as a press workshop, for literary or political gatherings, always with a thermos of coffee. There, Raúl Rivero taught journalism classes and it also served as a set for interviews with the foreign press.
It was at Ricardo’s home where, in 2000, the Manuel Márquez Sterling Journalists Society was founded, which brought together the majority of the free correspondents in Cuba and where De Cuba magazine was created. The first number came out in December 2002 and the second in February 2003.
The journalists Luis Cino, a friend in good times and bad, along with Claudia Márquez and Ricardo, were in charge of the selection, editing and layout of the articles.
On any one day, in that house in Miramar, there were about ten to fifteen reporters, almost all of them with vast experience in the official press. The most inexperienced always received good advice from journalists like Raúl Rivero, Ana Luisa López Baeza, Iria González Rodiles, Tania Quintero or Ricardo González Alfonso himself.
Harassment and repression by State Security was part of daily life. We promptly denounced it on Radio Martí when they confiscated our money or work material, as well as the summons and threats of the G-2, the Intelligence Directorate. I remember that in those days of February 2003, when I spoke with Luis Cino, I told him that a security guy on a Suzuki motorcycle who called himself Jesus, on the corner of the so-called Red Square of La Víbora, had told me: “You people have little left.” I did not pay particular attention.
The repression was constant and at all times. The official media set the stage for the future raid against 75 peaceful opponents, including 27 independent journalists, by publishing editorial vitriolic against the opposition. At night, I would turn the sound down on the black and white television so that my grandmother, my sister and my 8-year-old niece would not hear the name of my mother, Tania Quintero, nor Fidel Castro’s public threats against the opposition.
At that time, Castro spent hours reading reports and citing the names of journalists and dissident activists who attended receptions and visited European embassies or the United States Interests Section. The atmosphere smelled like something was going to happen. Tania and I carried a spoon and a toothbrush when we went out, in case they stopped us.
On Tuesday, March 18, 2003, I had a difficult day. I lived with my mother, my grandmother, my sister and my niece in La Víbora, I had written an article for Encuentro en la Red (Meeting on the Network) and had to find a way to send it. But in the Sevillano neighborhood I had a daughter a little over a month old and in the afternoon, when I went to see her, her mother was dead tired because the baby was keeping her up at nights. I decided to stay, so she could rest.
I sat with the baby in an armchair was midnight, when she fell asleep. I put her in the cradle, I said goodbye to her mother and when I went to my house, down San Miguel Street, I was struck by the fact that Villa Marista, the political police barracks, was completely lit up.
The most veteran among the dissidents said that when “all the lights of Villa Marista are lit, it means something bad is happening or is going to happen.”
At the little kiosk on Avenida Acosta, I ate two fritters and an instant pineapple drink. When I turned the corner of Diez de Octubre and Carmen and was nearly at our apartment on the first floor, when I saw Tania waving at me from the terrace. I stopped and in a low voice she said: “Iván, they have several opponents and independent journalists. At any moment they are coming to look for us.” I felt a chill of fear.
I took a deep breath, hurriedly climbed the stairs, Tania was waiting for me at the door and I said: “Whatever happens will happen. Better lie down and try to sleep because Security starts its operations at 5 or 6 in the morning. ” The following days were terrible. The list of those arrested was initially a hundred, later it was 75.
It is said that the dictator made an account and arrested 15 dissidents for each of the 5 spies of the Avispa network who were imprisoned in the United States. The trials were summary. The sentences of the prosecution were appalling. For seven of the opponents they asked for the death penalty. Luckily, the autocracy did not go that far.
In November of 2003, Tania, my sister and my niece went into exile in Switzerland. Independent journalism remained in its death throes, but it did not die. Some continued writing without signing the articles. Others waited for the tide to go out to go back to writing.
Five years later, in 2008, journalism without a gag re-emerged with force. Supported by new technologies, various rebellious blogs appeared and the quality of websites on Cuban topics based inside and outside the country rose. International media, such as El Mundo, BBC and El País, among others, began publishing collaborations with unofficial journalists. It was the best possible shield: the regime was careful about repressing those who write in influential newspapers in Europe and the United States.
Today, more than 250 reporters, of different tendencies, write independently from the Island. The harassment and repression of dissent continues. But never at the level of the Black Spring of 2003.
Fifteen years later, Cuba is closer than ever to the road to democracy. It may take six months or six years. But it will happen.