Independent Journalism: A Risky Profession in Cuba

Jorge Enrique Rodríguez, an independent journalist who writes for Diario de Cuba and the Spanish newspaper ABC. (Radio Televisión Martí)

Iván García, July 6, 2020 – To do objective journalism in Cuba is an abstraction. You cannot obtain data or statistics from official institutions, as there is no public information office. What is normal in any other country in the world – knowing the president’s agenda or itinerary, accrediting yourself at a minister’s press conference, or participating in a given event – is an impossible mission on the Island.

Knowing the budget of the stealthy military business monopoly GAESA, or how much it has invested in the construction of luxury hotels, is considered a state secret. Even information about the remittances that former ‘worms’ [exiles] send to the Island is classified. Cuba is a mixture of police control, failed welfare state, and a scheme of government in the style of the former Soviet Union’s powerful bureau. Is Cuba communist? The facts indicate that Marx’s ideology was adopted to camouflage Fidel Castro’s political and military caudillismo and thirst for power.

The regime’s ideological contortions to survive could fill an anthology. At a certain stage – following the collapse of the USSR – Catholicism, Santería, and other religious currents were authorized to join the membership of the Communist Party, provided they expressed loyalty to the comandante.

Right now, an authoritarian government exercises the worst state capitalism in Cuba. It combines anachronistic command-and-control institutions with a planned economy, pockets of capitalist market economy, and a military business conglomerate that controls 90 percent of the currency that circulates in the country.

Vis-à-vis the international gallery, the olive-green* autocracy wants to sell itself as reformist and open to dialogue and foreign investment. Internally, the story is different: fear that small family businesses will make a lot of money, high taxes to curb private work, and a pseudo-nationalist discourse intended to bolster the cult of personality of the late Fidel Castro.

Although the welfare state is a drain everywhere, the regime clings to its immobility and proclaims that it is the solution to the pressing problems that Cubans suffer due to the serious economic crisis and alarming shortages of food and housing. In this unproductive system, the official press plays a fundamental role.

There is a whole network designed by the Communist Party to control the media and its journalists. The Department of Revolutionary Orientation (DOR) is the entity that supervises the press and conveys the guidelines of the highest leadership to directors, deputy directors, and chief editors. A scheme copied from the Soviet era and that works according to the top leadership’s linkages and interests.

Opinions and judgments about the international press are classified in terms of friendly, enemy, or neutral countries. Regarding the “friendly” countries – Russia, Iran, North Korea, Nicaragua, Venezuela, China, Vietnam, or Mexico – you will not read or see criticism of their governments and institutions in newspapers and television newscasts. Condemnations of human rights violations, articles highlighting the increase in poverty, police violence, unemployment, or economic crisis, are reserved for “enemy” countries, mainly the United States.

Such is the amount of human resources dedicated to the “Number One Enemy of the Revolution” that whole departments are assigned to the United States. The number of specialists and expert journalists on that nation far exceeds that of academics who should seek solutions to Cuba’s structural malfunction.

There are three national newspapers: Granma, Juventud Rebelde, and Trabajadores. The three compete to see who is the most misinformed. Granma is the organ of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), Juventud Rebelde of the Young Communist League (UJC), and Trabajadores of the Workers Central Union of Cuba (CTC). But only one should be published – thereby saving paper – because both the UJC and the CTC fall under the umbrella of the PCC. Pure libels.

The fifteen Cuban provinces and the special municipality, Isla de la Juventud, have their newspapers, which are more of the same. Dozens of national, provincial, and municipal radio stations, ten national and several regional television channels, are in operation. Magazines are published that vary only in name but hardly in content.

The study of journalism in Cuba is an ideological field, controlled by the Communist Party. The most irreverent journalists who have their own opinions are left without jobs. A Cuban official journalist is a type of scribe. S/he cannot write about a topic of choice, and the censor’s red pen can mutilate paragraphs

In the late 1980s, an attempt was made to populate this information desert by various journalists who came from the official press, such as Indamiro Restano, Rolando Cartaya, Tania Díaz Castro, and Rafael Solano. Solano was awarded the 1988 Rey de España prize in journalism for his articles focused on political issues. In the mid-1990s, independent press agencies emerged, among them Cuba Press, the most professional of all, directed by Raúl Rivero, and which began covering social issues, publishing stories about prostitution, drug use, illicit gambling, and other problems of national life that did not appear in the state press.

The testimonies of those who had no voice expanded the journalistic tuning fork and relegated political hack writing to the background. In addition, it was more cost-effective to tell stories of jineteras, drug addicts, beggars, and families residing in houses in danger of collapsing, since no authorization was needed to conduct the interviews, only the consent of the interviewees. But, it was still difficult to find other points of view, the necessary journalistic balance, because state officials almost never offered their impressions to an independent communicator.

With the passage of time, things changed. Visibility on the internet and international recognition of the independent press has been of great help. Journalists without muzzles began to publish pieces in newspapers of wide circulation such as El Mundo, El País, El Nuevo Herald, Diario Las Américas, The New York Times… Recently, Abraham Jiménez was appointed as a columnist at  The Washington Post.

What is the most difficult thing about doing quality journalism in Cuba? From my point of view, it is having good sources. This is done with trust and respect for diverse political opinions. Many citizens, including middle-ranking state officials, take advantage of their friendly relationships with a freelance journalist to uncover corruption cases or provide classified data and statistics. Since Cuba functions as a police state, we free journalists must take care of and protect our sources.

My advice to novice journalists seems more like a manual for spies. Among my tips: Have phone cards that are not in the name of the journalist or any close family member. When aiming to cover a high-risk event – such as the June 30 call for a peaceful demonstration to protest the murder of young Hansel Ernesto González Galiano by a policeman and against police violence in Cuba – one of the first measures that State Security takes is to cut the phone lines and disable internet data traffic.

So that we are not left without means of communication, the thing to do is to have more than one blank SIM card that would allow one to communicate with sources. Always use secure channels – not SMS, phone calls, or email. So that our plans do not leak, it is essential to be discreet, walk alone, and not talk about your plans in front of a group of people. The political police have infiltrated much of the dissident movement and of independent journalism.

To demonstrate that it is not a bloody dictatorship, Castroism boasts that a journalist has never been murdered in Cuba. This is true. It is also unnecessary. They use other methods. They murder your reputation, they try to demean you socially. They resort to disqualifications and insults, calling you ‘traitor’ and ‘mercenary’. Or they prevent you from leaving the country. This harassment has taken its toll on young and brilliant journalists and that is why they decided to emigrate.

Others, such as Camila Acosta, Mónica Baró, Abraham Jiménez or Jorge Enrique Rodríguez, have been subjected to intensified harassment.  In Rodríguez’s case, he was arrested on Sunday, June 28, on a charge of “contempt of authority,” and the authorities told him that they were going to put him on trial on Wednesday, July 8. Following a large gathering mobilized inside and outside the Island, he was released on Friday, July 3. The next day he had to report to a police unit, where he was fined 800 pesos, to be paid within ten days.

As the economic crisis worsened and with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, State Security redoubled the repression, increasing brief arrests against independent journalists, as well as seizures of work equipment. Until June 16, 28 journalists had been charged under the absurd Decree 370 (or, the “Scourge Law”) and fined 3,000 pesos, eight times the minimum wage. Since September 2019, the lawyer and journalist Roberto Quiñones, 63, has remained behind bars, accused of “disobedience” and “resistance”.

It is increasingly difficult to do serious, objective, and balanced journalism in Cuba. But not impossible. Something does get done.

 *Translator’s note: A reference to the color of the combat fatigues worn for years by Cuba’s top echelon of leaders.

Translated By: Alicia Barraqué Ellison