Independent Journalism In Cuba: Flourishing But Underfunded / Ivan Garcia

Journalists from Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean participate in the Investigative Journalism Workshop, organized by the Institute of the Americas on 10-14 November 2014, in San Diego, California. Representing Cuba was the independent journalist Iván García Quintero (back row, far left).

Iván García, 9 May 2019 — Around the mid-1990s, the cohort of official reporters taking the leap into unrestricted journalism in Cuba had — besides experience and media training — the privilege of typewriters at their disposal. Those just starting out in the world’s best occupation were hand-writing their articles in school notebooks.

Newbies would be tasked with reporting evictions, setting up interviews, or being gofers. Those who had been at it longer would sign the articles to be published later by some daily or website based in Florida. In 1995, when poet, writer, and journalist Raúl Rivero founded the Cuba Press agency, he opened the door to a handful of young people who lacked a journalism education but had the desire to learn and work.

To the rookie reporters, Raúl would assign brief write-ups, which after his meticulous review of spelling and style, would be replete with strike-throughs from his red pen that he kept in the pocket of his perennial blue denim shirt. Rivero would dress up the story and insert a compelling headline, never longer than five or six words. In the end, the text would emerge, infused with the literary flavor of his excellent compositions.

Twenty-four years later, Luis Cino, Jorge Olivera, Víctor Manuel Domínguez and I, among others of Raúl’s followers, continue to religiously publish two or more columns per week on several sites.

We learned that work culture and respect for the profession from dyed-in-the-wool journalists such as Raúl Rivero, Tania Quintero and Ana Luisa López Baeza (deceased in 2018 in exile). It was a time when the Internet sounded like science fiction. Articles would be read by telephone to someone in Miami who would record the texts and later upload them online.

At that time, at the start of the independent journalism movement, you had to climb a sort of military ladder. First, you had to learn to write longhand. Then, you had to master the heavy-duty typewriters made in East Germany. And when you were finally capable of writing a decent text, you could produce it on a laptop that was rotated among various journalists. In those hard years, the beginner reporter learned by doing.

In the spring of 2003, Fidel Castro made a gross mistake: he sent 75 peaceful opposition members, 27 of whom were independent journalists, to prison. He expected that, by jailing a third of those who dedicated themselves to writing freely, he would intimidate the rest. But from the Island there was no stopping the denunciations about repression, the political prisoners of the Group of 75, nor about the situation in Cuba or of Cubans – even if the texts were published unsigned.

Fear did not freeze the writing pens. In November 2007, a group of journalists headed by Juan González Febles y Luis Cino founded Primavera Digital (Digital Spring), an openly anti-Castro weekly. Others continued sending their articles to Cubanet, Cubaencuentro, Revista de la Fundación Hispano-Cubana, and the Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa website.

Some months before, in April of 2007, following the success of the Generación Y blog created by Yoani Sánchez, other oppositional blogs began multiplying. Dozens of bloggers irrupted into digital journalism. Starting in 2012, the incessant trickle of journalists quitting their positions in state media has been unstoppable. As of today, the independent (or free, or alternative – whatever you want to call it) press has grown impressively.

To the more than 200 reporters who, on their own and at their own risk systematically write from Cuba on political, social, cultural, ecological or sports-related topics, we must add newspapers, magazines, Facebook accounts, YouTube channels, and other online platforms.

Also administered from the Island are Primavera Digital, 14ymedio, Periodismo de Barrio, Postdata Club, La Joven Cuba, El Estornudo, El Toque, and Vistar Magazine, among others. Ignacio González of En Caliente Prensa Libre, headquartered in Havana, and Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina of Palenque Visión, located in the eastern zone of the Island, lead audiovisual agencies that are notable for their social protests.

Almost all free communicators lambast the government. Others demand democratic changes, but they recognize and accept the status quo. The biggest problem faced by sites edited in Cuba is monetary. Periodismo de Barrio is the only one that transparently informs the public how it receives and spends its funding, which isn’t much.

The lack of regular cash flow when it’s time to pay contributors for their work, and of the minimum financing needed in journalism, puts the brakes on various projects. Journalistic investigations and in-depth reporting are expensive: they tend to be team efforts, they can last for months, and occasionally require travel to other locations, provinces or countries. With no access to bank credits, the new independent journalism presents a great many difficulties for self-management, growth, and solvency.

The majority of independent journalists in Cuba survive by writing for sites whose editorial staffs are based abroad. A great portion of the materials published in Diario de Cuba, Cubanet and Cubaencuentro come from Cuba. But other sites, also located in foreign countries and dedicated to the subject of Cuba, are sustained by contributors who do not live in Cuba, by international news agencies, and by the rehashing of content from independent sites or the official Cuban press.

Some non-official reporters collaborate on commercial sites run out of the United States, Mexico, and Spain. Those who do this on sites that are subsidized by various foundations will charge $30 to $40 dollars per published text, a bit more if accompanied by photos or videos. Those who publish in for-profit media can make double that, from $50 to $60 per piece. But there are very few who can publish between eight and ten works per month in a private newspaper.

Due to the boom in the number of journalists and a deficit of financing for the editorial offices anchored in other countries, even a willing editor cannot publish more than five or six pieces per month by a single contributor. On average, an independent journalist in Cuba makes somewhere between $125 and $150 per month. This amount is the equivalent of four to six times the median salary in Cuba, but given the scarcities and inflation rampant in the country, it is not enough to live on and provide for a family.

So, what happens? With no outlets for their writing, talented journalists – who, besides lacking material goods, are harassed by State Security – are making plans to exit the country permanently. This is a shame. Young people are leaving who excel in the profession and have even taken courses and won scholarships in foreign universities.

One solution that would stem this bloodletting might be that serious and professional sites such as Diario de Cuba, Cubanet and Cubaencuentro, could receive greater funding so that they could publish more journalists residing on the Island and pay them better rates. Or that foundations or non-governmental organizations would facilitate funds for independent reporters with possibilities of establishing a digital journalism site headquartered in Havana.

Cuba’s future will be decided in around five or six years. By then, the country will find itself with an even more ruined economy, without public infrastructure to speak of, and decapitalized corporations.

And, contrary to the spokespersons for neo-Castroism in the state-run media, Cuban independent journalists will continue denouncing injustice and shedding light on the reality of their country and people. As they have done up to now.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison