Reinaldo Escobar: The Unqualified Cuban Truth / Somos+

Photo taken from the web

Somos+, Leyla Belo, 23 March 2017 — Those who ever speak with Reinaldo cannot deny his innate genius, his sense of humor and gentleness of expression. A matter of decorum, isn’t it? That quality which is so scarce among many people nowadays.  He does what he considers to be his duty: to disassemble our Island from within, dreaming that some of us, or all of us together, will fix it. Each one of his writings brims with endless sensibility, while leaving to others the use of easy adjectives and trivial cruelties.  A committed journal¡ist; of the kind of those no longer living, because his commitment is not centered around one man but around his Cuba, his suffering Cuba.

You had nearly two decades of work in official media under your belt. When did you decide to take another path and why?

When I was supposed to graduate from the School of Journalism in 1971, there was a “purge” at the University of Havana which meant the expulsion and punishment of several students. My “punishment,” caused by my “ideological issues,” consisted of working for a year for a tabloid by the name of El Bayardo, which was part of Columna Juvenil el Centenario, a youth brigade (a forerunner of the Youth Working Army), in Camagûey province. I stayed there until mid-1973.

After serving out my sentence I was placed with Revista Cuba Internacional where, according to my colleague Norberto Fuentes, we were involved in “sugarcoating.”  I worked there until mid-1987, when I transferred to the Juventud Rebelde newspaper, inspired by the Soviet glasnost, and thought that we would be able to engage in a different type of journalism in Cuba. I tried to do so with the best of intentions, and the result was that I was expelled from the newspaper in 1988 and disqualified from exercising the profession on the Island. Thus, some 18 years elapsed between mid-1971 and 1988 when I was engaged in official journalism.

I began working as an independent journalist in January, 1989, which was referred to at that time as “freelance” journalism, and contributed to several European publications by writing about Cuban subjects.

You are the founder of 14ymedio and are its Editor in Chief. How difficult is it to engage in serious journalism in an underground media?

The 14ymedio newspaper is not an underground newspaper. If I were to label it at all, I would rather call it an independent or unofficial newspaper. The best definition is that we are a digital, non-subsidized, non-printed newspaper.

That definition is essential to explain its difficulties. The problem other media have in securing ink and paper is experienced by us in achieving Internet connectivity. The largest volume of information flow is with our correspondents in the provinces and with other associates through the Nauta webmail network, which is slow and government-controlled.

The other difficulty is the scarcity of journalists who meet the appropriate requirements, as the first characteristic is for them to have the professional sensibility to sense everything which is really newsworthy. The second characteristic is to be able to truthfully and appealingly write in any journalistic genre, while checking with reliable sources. The third element is for them to dare to face the risks stemming from the threats by the political police.

At times those threats materialize into specific events which physically render it difficult to perform our job.

Current independent journalism (most of it) does not stem from a “passion” when dealing with the news.

One of the distinctive features of the current, independent journalism is the short distance that exists between many of its reporters and political activism. Arbitrary detentions, beatings, searches, evictions and everything that contributes to a true picture of a typical dictatorship seems to be the only thing of interest to that type of journalism. This can be explained because such news is absent from official media, and to counteract the official media monopoly on information is one of the raisons d’être of independent media. The passion is inherent to the nature of this reporting, hence the (always unnecessary) profusion of adjectives.

Independent journalism should also focus on other matters, such as the growing presence of entrepreneurs, and it should look at those –apparently insignificant– signs of defiance by our plastic artists, filmmakers, writers, humorists and musicians.

Authorized press in Cuba is subsidized by the Cuban Communist Party (PCC). In your opinion, what would be the ideal management paradigm for the media?

I do not think there is an ideal management paradigm for the media.

The issue of media ownership is a complex matter. When it is privately-owned,  under a market system, information becomes one more item of merchandise and “what sells” gains visibility over “what needs to be reported.” When management is in state hands and does not depend on advertisers, the media often becomes boring and doctrinaire. In addition, there is public management, which is somewhat different from state management in that it is governed by the readership.

Even though it is not noticed at first glance, the official broadcasting media in Cuba are privately-owned and are the monopoly of the Communist Party. If we understand that the concept of ownership specifically refers to the decision-making capacity and add to the aspect of material responsibility for what is owned, there is no question that the official media owner is the PCC, which designates the management staff, establishes the editorial line, manages material resources and pays the salaries.

Earnings are not measured in terms of money as under a market system, but in terms of the achieved control over the population, which only finds out about what those media report if they are privileged enough to connect to other media. It is acceptable for a political party to own its own publication, but it not acceptable for that party, having exclusive access to power in the name of the law, to use State funds to pay the cost of its media and, in addition, to take upon itself the right of prohibiting the existence of its competitors.

Eventually, we will have private newspapers and magazines in Cuba, perhaps full of advertisements, police-blotter journalism and trivial news about the world of show business; civil society institutions will manage their own media and perhaps there will be a public TV channel where people will learn about the debates in Parliament.

You interviewed the Law student expelled from Cienfuegos University. How do you define his action?

This young man only exercised his sacrosanct right to free expression when answering the test questions. If a student is asked on a test what his opinion is regarding a specific subject, whoever grades the test has to refrain from his or her political prejudices, otherwise they should pose the questions with more honesty, such as, “What do you think I would be pleased to hear regarding such subject?”

You were detained a few months ago while a Spanish journalist was interviewing you. Was that another violation of the freedom of expression?

During the days of mourning following the death of former president Fidel Castro, I was interviewed by journalist Vicent Sanclemente, from Televisión Española. I do not think I was being followed at that particular time, but “they” were just highly-strung. Maybe the informant who was keeping an eye by the Malecón sea wall thought my answers to be inappropriate. When this young man reported to his superiors that there was a Cuban guy saying strange things to a foreign journalist, the person who got the report was compelled to fulfill his duty. Something “natural” in our environment.

Violating the freedom of expression is expressed in the most acute way when, for instance, our newspaper becomes inaccessible to the domestic servers providing Internet browsing service.

The official discourse boasts of freedom of expression in Cuba. Yet the reality is different.

Once, I do not remember the exact date, Mr. Carlos Lage maintained that there was total freedom of thought in Cuba… and it is true. What happens is, as Friedrich Engels used to say, “the word is the material wrapping of thought,” so that it is totally worthless for someone to come up with a political formula if he or she cannot in absolute calmness expound upon it to all of his or her followers.

Freedom of expression, exercised in its public environment, is the best guarantee that all rights to which people are entitled are fulfilled, including, naturally, the right to education, public health and social security.

Translated by: Anonymous