CUBA Journalism in the street / Ivan Garcia

Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Owing to the lack of statistics and figures, independent Cuban reporters have to reinvent certain rules when providing information. We don’t have access to government press conferences and no minister gives interviews or comments.

Nor can we rival the foreign agencies accredited in Havana. Not having technology, 24-hour internet access, being unable to cover official events, it is impossible to compete with the speed of the foreign press.

There are certain types of news which an independent journalist can put out faster than a correspondent from the BBC, EFE, or AP. Above all in relation to the world of opposition: a dissident’s hunger strike, an eviction, or one of the Ladies in White being beaten up.

But that’s not the best side of the field to be playing on. Cuba is an area full of stories that the regime tries to ignore. In the streets and shanty towns, chatting to ordinary folk, we always find good reports.

We have something to thank the poor work of the state journalists for. If Granma and Juventud Rebelde were in the habit of providing information about marginalization, ruinous infrastructure, or how Cubans manage to survive inside the socialist madhouse, there would not be much reason for independent journalism to exist.

We would limit ourselves to writing boring opinion pieces. Or cover opposition meetings. The official journalists have left the battle-field and left it open to the dissident journalists.

It was a major error not to provide information about day-to-day life, nor about the ills that afflict society, like drugs, prostitution and corruption at all levels.

The ideological Taliban like to sell their account of how the island is different from the rest of the poor capitalist nations of the American continent.

At one time it was. There wasn’t freedom of expression or of association, but the state, supported by the inflow of millions of Soviet rubles, guaranteed a grey kind of life with health and free education.

In return, we were supposed to be “Revolutionaries”. To applaud speeches about the “Maximum Leader” and condemn Yankee Imperialism. That was the deal. Political disagreements were restricted to our living rooms.

It was prohibited to ventilate them in public. Any criticism, we were told, had to be “constructive”. You were allowed to complain about poor food service or inefficient officials.

What you could never do was indicate that Fidel Castro was responsible for the economic disaster and the failure of a social project. The Comandante was like Zeus. God of gods. Untouchable.

The independent journalists crushed that myth. Not to be seen as heroes. Or martyrs. Just that one morning we crossed the borderline of what we were supposed to talk about or say laid down by the government.

And we know what enormous courage was required and that  there is a price to pay. From libel to jail. But here we are. Telling the stories of the man in the street. Everyday I talk to workmen, kids, the old and the marginalized, the tired and those disillusioned by 54 years of autocracy.

I am not writing about the human misery experienced by some of the people in order to damage the image exported by the government. Describing the lives of the losers, the ignored and forgotten is part of the commitment of a free journalist.

If the mandarins who control the media consider that “disseminating human misery helps the enemy”, that’s their problem.

It’s up to me to relate what happens in the place where I live and in the city where I was born. To give a voice  to citizens who don’t exist as far as the official press is concerned, And they are there. You only have to go out into the street.

Fat Antonio said “I’m fed up with it.”

(This anecdote was published 14 September 2009 in the blog Desde Havana.)

Antonio Mateo, felt he was about to go mad. Monday August 3, 2009 he woke up early, took his usual sip of bitter coffee and decided that on that Monday he would do something different. He wrote an open letter telling about his boring life and the bad state of his home.

Antonio, 46 years old, and 280 pounds, living next to Malecón 655, had had enough. The long-drawn-out bureaucratic processes for dealing with his problems were now just too much. For years he wanted to do an exchange — trade his home for someone else’s — but the rigid and absurd laws applied by the Housing Institute did not permit people to exchange in certain neighbourhoods.

Not even if they own their own houses, as in Antonio’s case. He knows very well that in Cuba the word proprietor is a bad joke. People who own their own homes, lose their rights if they decide to leave the country and have to go through long processes when they decide they want to exchange it. Selling the house to someone else is prohibited by the anachronistic Soviet-style statutes which still exist in Cuba.

Desperate, Antonio decided to cut things short. He moved his old bed into the middle of the public street and deposited his 280 pounds in it. It was his way of protesting. The fearless police were there for three hours, trying to find a way out of the conflict, unused to these signs of rebelliousness in a population that was generally very peaceful.

Of course, he was taken off to the police station. It is not known what sanction or fine was imposed. In one part of his letter, with a dose of anguish and anger Antonio says: “I address myself to you to set out my problem, in view of the fact that I have applied to other levels and had no reply. I live in a room, which I own, and when the Malecon Plan started, the zone was frozen, and I can’t move, or carry out maintenance, or have a wife and children living with me. I have realized that everything is an argument with lies and more lies. I don’t want a palace, I only ask that they come up with a solution. I am a sick man who needs peace and a place where I can live with my loved ones who could look after me and help me.”

Simple people, like Fat Antonio or Pánfilo, famous for exploding with anger a few months ago in front of the foreign press cameras, and as far as we knew, have been sentenced to two years in jail for the crime of “being dangerous”, show that something is changing in some people’s mentality in Cuba. For the moment, Fat Antonio says “I’m fed up with it”.

Translated by GH

14 July 2013