Being a Journalist in Cuba

To engage in the profession of journalism in Cuba, outside the control of the state, has its dangers.  Not to the extreme of having a hitman show up at your door on a motorcycle and fire a full magazine at you point blank from a .45 caliber pistol, as happens in Mexico or Colombia.

They also don’t put a black hood over you and later dump your mutilated body in a dumpster, as occurred during the 80’s in Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala.  No.  For being an independent journalist or a critic of the Castro administration what could happen to you is that you can be thrown behind bars for up to 20 years if the government decides to do so.

The Castros promise many years of jail for those of us who report on our own account.  But to date, there has not been a documented State-sponsored assassination of a reporter, either official or independent.

For being a free lance journalist on the island, authorities can orchestrate an “act of repudiation”, a verbal lynching in which members of the public, instigated by the political police, insult and scream at you with the veins extended on their necks about to explode.

It’s also possible that some unknown person, a supposed “delinquent”, will ambush you and beat you up in the darkness of the night.  Or that the phone in your house will ring incessantly at 3 A.M. and when you answer it, a disguised voice shouts an earful of insults at you. By the way

When you decide to write without official sanction you lose your job, and State Security has the right to threaten you and summon and question you whenever they feel like it, under the guise of having a “friendly chat.”

The phenomenon of Cuban independent journalism was born in the 90’s.  Among its founders are Rolando Cartaya, Indamiro Restano, Rafael Solano, José Rivero, Julio San Francisco, Raúl Rivero, Iria González Rodiles, Ana Luisa López Baeza, Juan Antonio Sánchez, Germán Castro, Tania Quintero, Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, Jorge Olivera, Olance Nogueras, Joaquin Torres, Héctor Peraza, Manuel Vázquez Portal.

On 18 March 2003, Fidel Castro was determined to strike a blow against journalism outside the State. During the early morning hours that day, the political police forces arrested 75 dissidents and journalists. In the black spring, 25 communicators ended up in jail; their only crime was reporting without government permission.

Correspondents such as Raúl Rivero, one of the heavyweights of Cuban journalism and director of the independent agency Cuba Press, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Thanks to the intervention of the Spanish government, today he is a free man who writes two columns a week for the Spanish edition of the daily newspaper El Mundo.

Right now, 27 journalists languish in the hellish Cuban prisons. One of them is Ricardo González Alfonso, correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, who has not stopped writing in prison. In Spain he has published two books: Bleeding History, a collection of poems, and Men Without Faces, a narrative. Another is Pablo Pacheco, whose written and oral testimony from Canaleta Prison can be read on the blog Voices Behind Bars.

But since 1999, law number 88, or the gag law, has been floating menacingly in the air of the Republic, giving the regime a free hand in deciding when to send someone to the penitentiary. Not a single text by a free Cuban journalist has been written without a measure of fear and paranoia. It’s normal. Because you never know if tonight you will sleep in your own bed or in the bunk of a jail cell of the police or State Security.

At times I have a nightmare. In the solitude of my room, I dream that there is a loud pounding on the door of the house. And some tough, dog-faced guys dressed in olive green take me out of the room without my feet touching the floor, throw me by force into a Russian-made car with military license plates, and take me as a prisoner to an unknown destination.

Not all are hallucinations. Sometimes I dream that the little hands of my seven-year-old daughter, together with her mother, wake me with the good news that the government of General Raúl Castro abolished the absurd laws — Cubans no longer need permission to leave the island, the exiles who wish may return to their homeland, and never again will it be a crime to write a chronicle or opinion piece telling the truth about Cuba and Cubans.

Whenever this happens, I wonder which of these dreams will become a reality first.

Iván García

Photo: AP. (Right) Ricardo González Alfonso in 2002, some months before being detained and sentenced to 20 years in prison. (Left) Luis Cino, also an independent journalist.

Translated by Raul G. and Tomás A.