Notes from the Underground

Impoverished and imperiled, Cuba's independent journalists stubbornly cling to the notion of a free press

"Three ... two ... one: According to press reports, the Spanish government has pledged 25 million pesetas in aid to the victims of Hurricane Lili. Private donations from Spanish municipal, local, and regional organizations will reportedly exceed that amount. The first flight, carrying food, medicine, et cetera, will arrive in Cuba the last week of October."

-- Luis Lopez Prendes, Bureau de Prensa Independiente de Cuba

Lopez is speaking loudly into a battered rotary phone in a windowless, two-room hovel off an alley in Havana's densely populated, dilapidated, working-class neighborhood of Cerro. The 43-year-old economist-turned-guerrilla-journalist reads the handwritten text from a crumpled piece of paper. His voice is rough and his delivery uneven, but what Lopez lacks in polish he makes up for in pluck.

His reporting of the news -- to a friend in Puerto Rico who will later assist in having it rebroadcast on a foreign radio station to his compatriots in Cuba -- is considered counterrevolutionary. If he is caught and charged with crimes against the state, he could face imprisonment. Under the Cuban constitution, only the "official" media are guaranteed freedom of expression. An independent journalist is, therefore, an oxymoron. Luis López Prendes should not exist.

This past April state security agents ransacked the office of the Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba, a bedroom in the house of one of its members, which had been jury-rigged as a newsroom. They confiscated two typewriters, a beat-up word processor, a computer printer, all office supplies, files, and correspondence. Not a single pen or pencil was left behind. The raid was a devastating blow. Pens are hard to come by in Cuba's shriveled economy, let alone computer hardware.

Agents warned bureau members to cease their activities or face lengthy prison terms. They also encouraged the journalists to leave the country. But López and his thirteen colleagues at the BPIC, along with a dozen or so journalists at other independent agencies, ignored the threats. To the best of their ability, chasing the news by bicycle and scrawling out radio scripts on scraps of paper, they have continued to provide Cubans with an alternative to the homogenized drone of the state media.

Their efforts have been met with international support from press-freedom groups such as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. This year the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), a coalition of more than 1000 Western Hemisphere newspaper editors and publishers, awarded them the Grand Prize for Press Freedom. According to a statement released by the IAPA, "the independent Cuban news agencies, despite the daily censorship, violence, and intimidation carried out against their journalists, defied the state propaganda apparatus and fought so that freedom of expression and democracy may finally triumph in their country."

In a nation reinvented by an improbable coterie of idealistic rebels, independent journalists explaining the mechanics of their own quixotic endeavor seem equally improbable: Although they operate in Cuba and their audience is Cuban, they do not clandestinely distribute pamphlets or any type of underground newspaper. They do not have direct access to local airwaves through pirate radio or television stations. Instead they arrange for their stories to boomerang back to their homeland through foreign radio stations. They frequently transmit to the U.S. government's Radio Marti, and they also read their dispatches to commercial broadcasters in Miami whose signals can be heard on the island. In addition, a group of volunteers in Miami and Europe has constructed a Website for the journalists, on which their dispatches -- painstakingly transcribed from telephonic reports -- are regularly posted. Their articles can also be found in El Nuevo Herald (Spanish-language sister of the Miami Herald), the Miami-based Diario Las Americas, and other Spanish-language publications.

This Saturday morning, Lopez first tried calling Miami radio stations but got no answer. Next he dialed Carlos Franqui, once a close associate of Fidel Castro but now an exile living in Puerto Rico. Franqui had published the underground newspaper Revolucion and directed operations for the clandestine Radio Rebelde before Castro's guerrilla army swept down from the Sierra Maestra. For several years he headed the country's main newspaper until he decided he could no longer support the revolutionary government.

Franqui now acts as a representative for the Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba, accepting their collect calls, recording their dispatches, and helping them obtain outlets in the foreign media. He is also a publisher of Carta de Cuba, a Puerto Rican-based magazine devoted to the work of the independent journalists.

Finding a place for the journalists' work abroad is not easy because their interests are relentlessly local. Lopez, for example, has been arrested three times for trying to report on a housing eviction controversy in the municipality of GYines, a predominantly agricultural community outside Havana. The only media with an appetite for such provincial news are Radio Marti, which broadcasts to Cuba on AM and shortwave frequencies, and Miami radio stations catering to Cuban exiles. Though these outlets aren't ideal -- their proclivity for airing vicious anti-Castro tirades and denigrating the revolution's indisputable accomplishments have cost them legitimacy among the Cuban population -- the independent journalists aren't choosy. As long as the news gets out in some form, they believe it will make a difference.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets