Cuban Journalists are in No-Man’s Land / Ivan Garcia

Foto-de-Elaine-Díaz-tomada-de-Periodismo-de-Barrio-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 31 October 2015 — It seems much time has passed since the ’80s, when a stern official from State Security, dressed in civilian clothing, solemnly intimidated us, a group of fresh youngsters, who were studying at La Vibora’s pre-university.

I was 16 years old. I don’t remember having felt more fear in my life than that afternoon, when the agent showed us his document with a red stamp and green lettering: DSE. The initials of the feared Department of State Security.

The guy manipulated our youthful fear like an expert. Perhaps he learned that in a KGB counterintelligence academy, or in the STASI of Marcus Wolf.

He asked for discretion from the school director, known as “the Fly,” more intransigent than an Afghani Taliban. And he led us half-dozen kids with intellectual airs like a submissive flock toward the school library.

Our crime was watching movies and documentaries not shown in Cuba on Betamax videos, reading the prohibited books of Mario Vargas Llosa and Jorge Luis Borges and brushing up on Herberto Padilla’s poems.

The severe reprimands still resound in my ears. Some of us were crying and others were begging for forgiveness for their “sins.” The man, like someone all-powerful, waited to hear my plea for clemency.

I don’t know how I armed myself with valor before such authority, but with a trembling voice I let out a tirade about personal liberty and reading what one wanted.

“Can you imagine what would happen if your mother heard about this?” (She was an official journalist.)* What you’re reading is counter-revolutionary, and in Borges’ case leans toward Pinochet’s dictatorship,” the political policeman told me.

Before the “evidence” and, fearing that my mother would know, I also called up a mea culpa. Some years later, in 1991, I was detained for 15 days in a walled cell in Villa Marista**. Probably my libertarian sedition cost my mother her job at the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT) and in 1995, she left official journalism to write for Cuba Press, an alternative press agency.

She had a catharsis: after 20 years of being an independent journalist in Havana, she knew about the pressure that all those who disagree with the Regime’s narrative suffer.

There are two paths to take: suffer or shut up. And two ways out: continue living in your country like a zombie or scurry off to another nation. One is free to choose. No one has to be a martyr.

In Cuba there are laws that sentence you to 20 or more years in prison for writing without permission. But the times are different, even if the same people are in power.

The Castros’ autocracy has passed from being a totalitarian system, where the State controlled the flow of information, cinema, literature and any other intellectual facet with an iron fist, to an authoritarian nation that is opening slowly, with one foot anchored behind the door.

The Soviet paranoia, the acts of repudiation — veritable verbal lynchings — the wacky accusations and the shameful spewing of insults directed at someone’s integrity still continue.

But the desire of many communicators to express their way of thinking through a blog, a website or a digital newspaper has grown thanks to the new technologies.

When, at the end of the ’80s, ex-State reporters like Rolando Cartaya and Tania Díaz Castro started spreading the news generated by pro-human rights groups, they defined a road that Indamiro Restano, Rafael Solano and Raúl Rivero would follow later.

In an error of calculation, Fidel Castro’s government thought that incarcerating 27 free journalists in March 2003 would curtail the independent press. What happened was the opposite: it multiplied.

Now there are dozens who, on their own and at daily risk, report from every province. Furthermore, official journalists have to take into account the fact that these reporters collaborate with the foreign media. Or they are like Elaine Díaz, who has founded her own weekly, Journalism from the Barrio.

The difference between writing freely and editing boring news about supposed economic growth is abysmal. In their eagerness to head off the alternative bloggers who were led by Yoani Sánchez, the Regime authorized official and professional journalists to open blogs.

The plan was to create on the Internet a sphere for the Battle of Ideas***. It generated a full network of bloggers. There are those who are trained and vitriolic. Others are respectfully obstinate and convinced about the oliive-green Revolution. Or they are critical about the state of things, although their intent is to perfect the System.

But autonomy and liberal thinking engender distrust in a country where the orientation always comes from a central command post. The Government lost focus again.

There is no guided freedom or half-freedom. Binary education of “revolutionaries” against “dissident mercenaries” is very simple. But in the actual panorama of the Island, the “enemy” isn’t the dissident movement. It’s the discontent of a large segment of Cubans because of inefficient institutions, a crazy economy and corruption.

So journalists who are honest take their own pulse on reality. They aren’t official or independent. They work for the people.

Iván García

Photo of Elaine Díaz taken from “Fear of the Rain,” one of the articles with which Journalism from the Barrio had its debut, on October 18, 2015.

Translator’s notes:
*Tania Quintero Antúnez, who has lived in Switzerland as a political refugee since 2003.
**Formerly a Catholic schools for boys, under the Revolution it became (and remains) a prison, known for detaining political prisoners.
***Fidel Castro’s effort to reinforce his ideology and power.

Translated by Regina Anavy