Cubanet, Miriam Celaya, HAVANA, Cuba, 2 December 2014 — Young journalist Ernesto Londoño should feel very gratified professionally: he has not only managed to raise a bitter media controversy in recent weeks, stemming from his uncharacteristic editorial which appeared in the New York Times (NYT), in favor of bringing closer the governments of the US and Cuba and the lifting of the embargo, among other proposals, in line with the Cuban official discourse; but these days he has taken a “business trip” to the Island and has held several meetings with some media, including the most official media of all, the newspaper Granma, at whose headquarters he was cordially received on Monday, November 24th by the editorial team headed by its director. Londoño published several photographs of the occasion on his Twitter account.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday the 25th, the magazine OnCuba welcomed him at its headquarters in Havana, where “he talked, asked and responded to our concerns” according to an interview published by that journal, which states that Londoño is conducting research that will allow further development of the Cuba issue at the NYT. The page overflowed with photographs that testify to the meeting, depicting a smiling and relaxed Londoño.
And indeed, it appears that Londoño’s intention and that of his editorial bosses is to gather as much information as possible from diverse opinion sectors in this controversial trip. Or at least, that is what his phone call on Friday the 28th to the director of 14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, evidenced. During that call, he requested to meet with her, and she agreed to conduct a meeting which should also involve other team members, including 14ymedio‘s editor-in-chief Reinaldo Escobar, reporters Luzbely Escobar and Victor Ariel González, Rachel Vazquez, in charge of the cultural section, columnists Eliecer Avila and this writer, Miriam Celaya. The urgency of the meeting precluded the presence of provincial correspondents.
The Hotel Saratoga, a “Neutral” Venue?
On Saturday, November 29th, at 11 am according to our previous agreement, we met with Ernesto Londoño at a “neutral” venue as the mezzanine of the hotel where he was a guest, the Saratoga, located on Prado and Dragones Sts., right across from La Fuente de la India and adjacent to the Parque de la Fraternidad and the Capitol, where some of us connect to the Internet at the astronomical price of 12 CUC per hour, and to put up with the anguish of slow service and full of “blockades”. In fact, coincidentally, during our close to three-hour conversation, there was no connection.
All around us, the ill-concealed movement of the agents of the political police in their ridiculous disguises as ‘guests’, employees or clients of the cafeteria, reminded us that, under totalitarian regimes, neutrality is always a chimera. In all that time, not even one of the waitresses came near us to see if we wanted to order at least a coffee, something remarkable in a country where Cuban born citizens cannot remain sitting, occupying a table if we are not “consuming”.
Anyway, all that police deployment was a useless waste: we, the disobedient ones, did not go there to share secrets or to make compromises, but to express ourselves as freely as we usually do in our writings, so we didn’t even take the trouble to lower our voices.
The first impression, after the introductions with the journalist-revelation of the moment, was disappointing: Londoño could not answer the questions that each of us had prepared for him because “he must ask for the approval” of his NYT bosses. The essential requirement was for us to submit the questions in writing and wait for his answers. We also could not photograph him during the meeting. Any opinion he expressed personally at that meeting could not be published by us.
Suddenly, what we thought would be a meeting between colleagues in two different media, at which we would exchange views and discuss topics of crucial interest for Cubans, was turning into a “clandestine” date, with a certain tinge of adultery, a sort of media conspiracy designed to feed and diversify knowledge (his) about the Cuban reality, but without our ability to disclose his view points, his motives about our country or where his interests were headed.
In stark contrast to his stay at Granma newspaper, the meeting would have a restraint (embargo?) imposed precisely from the anti-embargo defender, the NYT. Live and learn!
Nevertheless, the representatives of 14ymedio present at that meeting agreed to offer Londoño our opinions about anything he was interested to know about our country, but we would be free to publish whatever we stated on our own… because such are the advantages of those who don’t need permission to express themselves.
A Gift for the NYT
Thus, based on rigorous ethical issues and honoring the commitment we agreed to, I will only present here a summary of my impressions and commentaries about the meeting and, at no time, the questions and opinions of the foreign visitor.
It is impossible to summarize in only a few words the variety of topics of conversation on that Saturday evening; although I would dare say that Londoño must have been surprised to discover such a diverse group of ages, professions and opinions grouped in the same project. Undoubtedly, he must have noticed the absence of the monotonous “choirs” of unanimous agreements or hesitation among cronies, and he certainly must not have noticed in other meetings the flow of ideas as critical, free and spontaneous: there was no agenda or orders to speak one’s opinion, or taboo subjects. Nobody lead the meeting, nobody moderated, and nobody censured. A real present for a visitor who tries to get close to a reality where entrenched, social auto-censorship reigns.
Politics, economics, society, history, law, Cuba-US relations; new laws; myths and realities of Raúl’s “reforms” and their results so far; necessary steps for real changes in Cuba, which we would like see reflected in the editorials of the NYT; what kind of journalism we Cubans want and what we recommend to foreign researchers if they really want to know Cuba were several of the countless of topics not yet exhausted, but that surely marked the difference between what we are and what they had told Ernesto Londoño we were.
At any rate, despite the limitations and how dreadful what he has written so far in his quasi-perverse editorials, about which I offered my sincere opinion, expressed in several articles published in Cubanet, I’m glad this young journalist has had, so far, the opportunity to listen to opinions from positions and commitments so different as those of the barricades of the official press or the free spontaneity of at least a portion of the voices of the independent press. We hope he will learn to feel the pulse of the Cubans at the bottom rungs, those who subsist in neighborhoods near his expensive lodgings. I hope that, going forward, he is more responsible, or at least that he assumes the consequences of his writings.
I am glad that he has also been in the company of the makers of “critical” publications so light that they enjoy the privilege to work in legal offices in Havana, another reform miracle that betrays the type of changes that the Cuban government has implemented and that constitutes a clear signal of the long road that we Cubans must travel in order to defend our interests, so different from the long Cuban dictatorship and from those that Ernesto Londoño himself has defended with as much ignorance as vehemence from the biased NYT editorials.
Translated by Norma Whiting