The Boom of Independent Journalism in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

Periodista-cubano-discutiendo-con-Víctor-Mesa1-_ab-620x330 (1)Ivan Garcia, 8 September 2015 — A little more than 25 years ago, a handful of human rights activists began issuing weekly reports that accused the military government of Fidel Castro of violating political, economic and free-expression liberties in Cuba.

These were the hard years of the regime in Havana. The Internet was in diapers and there was no cellphone service. The Castro brothers controlled Cuban society with an iron fist.

The Island lived in another dimension. Many Cubans only learned that the Berlin Wall was knocked down by wrathful Germans from the Communist East two months after it happened.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the selective assassinations by the KGB, and the Solidarity-sponsored strikes were banned news items in Cuba. Dissident activism garnered informative and accusatory news reports.

Not to be forgotten are the names of Ricardo Bofill, Rolando Cartaya, Marta Frayde, Roberto Luque Escalona, Reinaldo Bragado and Tania Díaz Castro, pioneers of guerrilla journalism.

Others came later. Opposition groups of varying political tendencies emerged which reported on the state of affairs in the country. The 1990s saw the appearance of independent press agencies.

Despite repression and material shortages, a half-dozen agencies were founded in Havana alone. Some reporters came out of state-sponsored journalism, others were young people with a vocation and a desire to make a career out of the best job in the world.

From the start, it was the work of two crews: exiled Cubans residing in Miami, from the rear, would record the texts by telephone and upload them to primitive Web pages.  Rosa Berre, Carlos Quintela, Nancy Pérez Crespo, Juan Granados, Bernardo Marqués Ravelo and Jesús Díaz were among them.

From Cuba, almost a hundred correspondents who bet on democracy would dictate our informational pieces and columns by telephone every week. I would like to pause to recognize one particular name: the poet and journalist from Moron, Raúl Rivero Castañeda.

He was the singular figure of independent journalism. The most talented and renowned. A master. When in what came to be known as the Black Spring of 2003 an irate Fidel Castro arbitrarily ordered the arrests of 75 dissidents, among whom were 27 ungagged communicators, he purposely ordered his hitmen to apprehend Raúl Rivero.

According to Castro’s logic, if they were able to deprive the movement of the women and men who reported freely from the various provinces, and with the wave of repression be able to inflict terror, they would do away with one of the problems that most preoccupied a regime that labeled us as “traitors.” And he said that we were “mercenaries of the pen who for a fistful of dollars would discredit the great achievements of Fidelist socialism.”

It was a terrible blow. But neither Law #88, which still floats in the air of the Republic and can mete a punishment of 20 years’ or more of incarceration to a journalist, nor the jailing of 27 colleagues* in 2003, could bury the independent journalism movement in Cuba.

To the contrary. During the worst of the repression and verbal lynchings orchestrated by the political police against government opponents and independent journalists, the alternative-press boom took off with never-before-seen force.

In April, 2007, Juan González Febles and Luis Cino Álvarez created the weekly Primavera Digital [Digital Spring]. That same year, Yoani Sánchez opened the way for a dissident blogosphere that spread like fire in a cane field.

On the threshold of Autumn, 2015, there exists in Cuba diverse publications outside of State control. Around 200 independent journalists and citizen communicators publish each week in blogs, web pages and foreign newspapers.

The regime is no longer the absolute owner of information. The government’s response has been to compete. Dozens of official journalists write their vision of Cuban society in blogs, web pages, online daily newspapers and magazines, national and foreign-based.

It is healthier to settle opposing viewpoints with words (albeit at times the disqualifications** cast a shadow over the debate), than to battle over differences with beatings and jailings.

This flowering of diverse journalism has been well-received, but it is hardly transcendent. Minimal access to the Internet keeps Cubans, who breakfast on coffee without milk, from reading the magnificent columns by independent journalists such as Luis Cino or María Matienzo. Neither can they access the reports by Elaine Díaz, Michel Contreras, Carlos M. Álvarez and Carlos Alberto Pérez, State-authorized journalists and bloggers.

The olive-green autocracy is bothered by the “unofficial” work done by some official reporters. Yuris Nórido and Jonah Díaz, among others, collaborate with media from other countries. Despite their balanced and objective reporting, they are viewed with a jaundiced eye by the talibans who design the policies governing communication and information.

Although officially the government has not opened the gates, a pallid tropical perestroika is looming on the horizon. The line is still quite tenuous, however, and nobody knows for sure its boundaries.

But at least, for a year now, the special services do not bother to issue citations to well-known dissident journalists, nor do they threaten them to charge them with defamation in order to justify their intolerance.

On this obstacle course, some–including Fernando Ravsberg, former correspondent with the BBC and producer of the site Cartas Desde Cuba–present the image of the Island that they prefer. The brake on such “independent official journalists” continues to be the State.

Already, Col. Rolando Alfonso Borges, chief of the sinister ideological department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, during an assembly held on 17 May at the Cuban Journalists Union, let fly a warning to State-sponsored reporters who collaborate with foreign media without permission from the government.

May his reproach only be a threat of the verbal kind.

Translator’s notes:

*The total number arrested in the Black Spring of 2003 was 75; in addition to journalists, they included were human rights and democracy activists, and indepedent librarians.

**The regime uses the term “disqualified to speak” against its opponents, as described in this post by Yoani Sanchez, where a State Security agent told her, “We want to warn you that you have transgressed all the limits of tolerance with your rapprochement and contacts with counter-revolutionary elements. This totally disqualifies you for dialog with Cuban authorities.”

Photo: The journalist Carlos M. Alvarez (Matanzas, 1989) discussing with Victor Mesa (Villa Clara, 1960), one of the best Cuban baseball players of all time who for the fifth year will manage the baseball team of Matanzas province. Taken from On Cuba Magazine.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison