Ivan Garcia, 23 November 2015 — On these hot nights in Havana, when nostalgia, that silent thief that robs you of strength, strikes without warning, Raúl Rivero, the poet, sneaks through my window and offers me a workshop specifically on the latest news from modern journalism.
The art of teaching still doesn’t accept journalistic lectures by telepathy. But I confess that I have grown as a reporter by brushing up on the lessons of the poet from Morón, Ciego de Ávila.
I met him one day before Christmas in 1995. There was an unusual cold spell in Havana. The sun didn’t poke out, and the greyness made the streets simmer with grime.
Raúl lived with his wife, Blanca Reyes, in an apartment building surrounded by tenements and braced-up houses in the La Victoria district, just in the heart of the capital.
A complicated district. Formerly a zone of pleasure and whorehouses and, after the olive-green Revolution, the cradle of prostitution, drugs and cheating by the deformed “New Man” that Fidel Castro intended to mold.
Spanish is reinvented in La Victoria, sprinkled with jargon that sounds like the Buenos Aires lunfardo. At the foot of the staircase, in the building where Rivero lived, they offer you bath soap and detergent, stolen the night before from the shops in Sabatéss, or a leg of homemade ham.
In that itinerant market, among mothers who gossiped about soap operas and husbands, resided the best living poet in Cuba. I had just turned 30, and journalism wasn’t alien to me.
When I was a kid, my mother — who since 2003 has been living in Switzerland as a political refugee — took me around the whole country while she prepared reports for Bohemia magazine or the Points of View program on national television.
A journalist friend of my mother told us: “That fat guy, Rivero, is organizing an independent press agency. Go there.” On September 23, 1955, the poet founded Cuba Press.
On the day I went to see him, Rivero received me in shorts and without a shirt, smoking one cigarette after another. Absorbed, he heard my proposal and spit out, laconically: “Write something, then we’ll see.”
Cuba Press was pure journalistic abstraction, but it had a marked intent of telling stories in another way. It would be very pretentious to call it a press agency, when the writing took place in a kind of office in the living room of Blanca and Raúl’s house.
There were no computers or teletypes. Only a fixed telephone and an Olivetti Lettera typewriter. There were times when the journalistic texts were read over the phone, and the Internet sounded like a fable.
Cuba Press was a factory for journalists, in particular for those who dreamed of doing it the best — riskier in the case of autocratic countries — in service to the world.
Together with reporters who were disenchanted with State journalism, like Rivero himself, Ana Luisa López Baeza, Iria González Rodiles, Tania Quintero Antúnez, José Rivero García and Ricardo González Alfonso, I learned how to be an independent journalist.
The Black Spring came later, in March 2003. And by Fidel Castro’s express order, 75 peaceful dissidents went to prison. Raúl Rivero was one of them. In 1999, when the Cuban Regime approved a gag law that harshly restricted freedom of expression and condemned whoever violated it to up to 20 years of prison, he wrote an anthology piece, Monologue of the Guilty:
“No one, no law could make me assume the mentality of a gangster or a delinquent because I report the arrest of a dissident or give the prices of basic food products in Cuba, or write an article where I say that it seems a disaster to me that more than 20,000 Cubans go into exile every year to the U.S., and hundreds more are trying to leave to go anywhere. No one can make me feel like a criminal, an enemy agent or unpatriotic by any of those idiocies that the Government uses to degrade and humiliate. I’m only a man who writes. And I write in the country where I was born, and where my great-grandparents were born.”
His imprisonment provoked a resounding international disgust. On April 1, 2005, he went to Madrid with his mother and wife as a political exile from the Castro Regime. One more.
Now Raúl publishes his weekly articles in the daily newspaper El Mundo, and friends say he sleeps with Cuba underneath his pillow.
Over here, on this side of the Malecón, when I get together with Luis Cino, Jorge Olivera and Victor Manuel Domínguez, we remember anecdotes about Rivera (they could fill a book). Or those press workshops that he taught, shooting words at us from an old armchair. And every time, we review his poetry and dissect our newspaper articles.
Some are authentic and masterful for professionals of the word. Read the introduction of this chronicle after the death of Gabo [Gabriel García Márquez]:
“For me the death that hurts is that of Gabriel García, that old reporter from Aracataca who let his mustache grow to resemble the singer, Bienvenido Granda. A man who liked to dream and write novels, clever and generous, who discovered beauty whenever he saw a woman for the first time, treated you to words and to whom life gave all the literary glory of the world — even a Nobel Prize — but let him die without permitting him to write the lyrics of a bolero.”
Or more recently, when in “None appeared to go to Cuba” he says: “None of those famous media people have been to Cuba. That zone in the Caribbean where they were and where others went to stay and photograph isn’t a country. It’s a reality imposed by a group in power who reclaim the money from foreign investment to leave their heirs in the Palace in command of that entelechy.
On November 23, Raúl Rivero will be 70 years old. We, his friends, are going to toast him with a drink of rum. Meanwhile, on an old turntable, we will listen to “Gray Rain,” the Spanish version of “Stormy Weather,” which launched Olga Guillot to fame in 1945.
Translated by Regina Anavy