Independent Journalism Seeks to Revive Press Freedom / Iván García

Photo: MartiNoticias

Iván García, 3 May 2017 — Let’s step back in time. One morning in 1985, Yndamiro Restano Díaz, a thirty-seven-year-old journalist with Radio Rebelde, took out an old Underwood and wrote a clandestine broadsheet entitled “Nueva Cuba.” After distributing the single-page, handmade newspaper up and down the street, one copy ended up pinned to a wall in the Coppelia ice cream parlor in the heart of Havana’s Vedado district.

His intention was not to criticize the autocratic regime of Fidel Castro. No, it was simply an act of rebellion by a reporter who believed that information was a public right. In his writing, Yndamiro tried to point out the dire consequences that institutional contradictions were having on the country’s economy.

He was arrested and questioned at Villa Marista, a jail run by the political police in southern Havana. Later that year he was arrested again, this time for having given an interview to the New York Times. That is when his troubles began. He was fired from Radio Rebelde and branded with a scarlet letter by Special Services. Without realizing it, Yndamiro Restano had laid the foundations for today’s independent journalism in Cuba.

Cuba was emerging from overwhelmingly bleak five-year period in which censorship was having an almost sickening effect. The winds of glasnost and perestroika were blowing from Gorbachev’s USSR. Some intellectuals and academicians such as the late Felix Bonne Carcasses decided the time was right for more democratic openness in society and the media. Havana was a hotbed of liberal thought.

Journalist Tania Díaz Castro along with young activists Rita Fleitas, Omar López Montenegro, Estela Jiménez and former political prisoner Reinaldo Bragado established the group Pro Arte Libre. According to the writer Rogelio Fabio Hurtado, Cuba’s independent press was born out of the first dissident organization, the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, led by Ricardo Boffill Pagés and the organization’s vice-president Rolando Cartaya, a former journalist at Juventud Rebelde. In a 2011 article published in Martí Noticias, Cartaya recalled, “When we arrived at dawn at his house in Guanabacoa’s Mañana district, Bofill had already produced half a dozen original essays and eight carbon copies of each for distribution to foreign press agencies and embassies.”

No longer able to work as a journalist, by 1987 Yndamiro Restano was making a living cleaning windows at a Havana hospital. He would later be fired from that job after giving an interview to the BBC. Frustrated by not being able to freely express himself in a society mired in duplicity and fear, he joined the unauthorized Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation created by Elizardo Sánchez.

Along with other journalists fired from newspapers, magazines, radio stations and television news programs who were eager to publish their own articles without censorship, Restano decided in 2011 to form an organization that would allow reporters condemned to silence to work together. Thus was born the Cuban Association of Independent Journalists, the first union of freelance correspondents.

In 1991 — a date which coincided with the beginning of the Special Period, an economic crisis lasting twenty-six years — the Havana poet Maria Elena Cruz Varela founded Criterio Alternativo which, among causes, championed freedom of expression. In an effort to crack open the government’s iron-fisted control of the nation, Maria Elena herself, along with Roberto Luque Escalona, Raúl Rivero Castaneda, Bernardo Marqués Ravelo, Manuel Diaz Martinez, Jose Lorenzo Fuentes, Manolo Granados and Jorge A. Pomar Montalvo and others signed the Charter of Ten, which demanded changes to Castro’s status quo.

On September 23, 1995, Raúl Rivero — probably Cuba’s most important living poet — founded Cuba Press in the living room of his home in La Victoria, a neighborhood in central Havana. The agency was an attempt to practice a different kind of professional journalism, one which reported on issues ignored by state-run media.

Now living in exile in Miami, Rivero notes, “I believe in the validity and strength of truly independent journalism, which made its name by reporting on economic crises, repression, lack of freedom and by looking for ways to revive the best aspects of the republican-era press.” He adds, “There was never an attempt to write anti-government propaganda like that of the regime. They were pieces whose aim was to paint a coherent portrait of reality. The articles with bylines were never written so some boss could enjoy a good breakfast. They were written to provide an honest opinion and a starting point for debate on important issues. That is why, as I found out, Cuba Press was formed at the end of the last century.”

Cuba Press brought together half a dozen official journalists who had been fired from their jobs. Tania Quintero, now a political refugee who has lived in Switzerland since 2003, was one of them.* Once a week, Quintero boarded a crowded bus to deliver two or three articles to Raul Rivero, whose third-floor apartment was a kind of impromptu editing room, with no shortage of dissertations on every topic. An old Remington typewriter stood vigil as the poet’s wife, Blanca Reyes, served coffee.

The budding independent journalism movement had more ambitions than resources. Reporters wrote out articles in longhand or relied on obsolete typewriters using whatever sheets of paper they could find. Stories were filed by reading them aloud over phone lines; the internet was still the stuff of science fiction. The political police often confiscated tape recorders and cameras, the tools then in use, and well as any money they found on detainees. They earned little money but enjoyed the solidarity of their colleagues, who made loans to each other that they knew would never be repaid.

Those who headed other alternative news agencies also had to deal with harassment, arrest and material deprivation. That was the case of Jorge Olivera Castillo, a former video editor at the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television who wound up being one of the founders of Havana Press.

Twenty-two years later, Olivera recalls, “Havana Press began life on May 1, 1995. A small group led by the journalist Rafael Solano, who had worked at Radio Rebelde, was given the task of starting this initiative under difficult conditions. After working for four years as a reporter, I took over as the agency’s director in 1999 and worked in that position until March 2003, when I was arrested and sentenced to eighteen years in prison during the Black Spring.”

Faced with adversity, the former directors of Havana Press — Rafael Solano, Julio Martinez and Joaquín Torres — were forced to go into exile. “More than two decades after this movement began, it is worth noting its importance to the pro-democracy struggle and its ability to survive in spite of obstacles. Those initial efforts paved the way for the gradual evolution of initiatives with similar aims,” observes Olivera.

For the former prisoner of conscience, “independent journalism remains one of the fundamental pillars in the struggle for a transition to democracy. It has held this position since the 1990s, when it emerged and gained strength due to the work of dozens of people, some of whom had worked for official media outlets and others who learned to practice the trade with remarkable skill.” This is because independent journalism began with people who had worked in technical fields or in universities but had no journalistic experience or training. They are self-taught or took self-improvement courses either in Cuba or abroad, carved a path for themselves and are now authorities their field. They include the likes of Luis Cino, Juan González Febles and Miriam Celaya.

Radio Martí was and still is the sounding board for the independent press and opposition activists. The broadcaster reports on the regime’s ongoing violations of freedom of expression, its intrigues, its delaying tactics and its attempts to feign democracy with propaganda that rivals that of North Korea.

In a 2014 article for Diario de Cuba, José Rivero García — a former journalist for Trabajadores (Workers) and one of the founders of Cuba Press — wrote, “It is worth remembering that this seed sprouted long before cell phones, Twitter, Facebook or basic computers. The number of independent journalists has multiplied thanks to technology and communication initiatives over which the Castro regime has no control.”

Necessity is the mother of invention. Even without the benefit of proper tools, a handful of men and women have managed in recent years to create independent publications such as Primavera Digital, Convivencia or 14ymedio.

Currently, there are some two-hundred colleagues working outside the confines of the state-run media in Havana and other provinces, writing, photographing, creating videos and making audio recordings. But they still face risks and are subject to threats. At any given moment they could be detained or have their equipment confiscated by State Security. Their articles, exposés, chronicles, interviews and opinion pieces can be found on Cubanet, Diario de Cuba, Martí Noticias, Cubaencuentro and other digital publications, including blogs and webpages.

In almost lockstep with the openly confrontational anti-Castro press there is an alternative world of bloggers and former state-employed journalists. They practice their profession as freelancers and hold differing positions and points of view. Among the best known are Elaine Díaz from Periodismo de Barrio, Fernando Rasvberg from Carta de Cuba and Harold Cárdenas from La Joven Cuba, all of whom are subject to harassment and the tyranny of the authorities.

Reports issued by organizations that defend press freedom in countries throughout the world rank Cuba among the lowest. The regime claims that there have been no extrajudicial executions on the island and that no journalists have been killed. There is no need. It has been killing off the free press in other ways since January 1959.

Since its beginnings more than two decades ago, Cuba’s independent press has sought to revive freedom of the press and freedom of expression. And slowly it has been succeeding. In spite of harassment and repression.

 *Translator’s note: Tania Quintero is the author’s mother.