Notes from the Underground

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

Agitated and high-strung, Lopez talks about his work with evangelical zeal. "We are doing a job that government is incapable of -- that is informing people about what is really happening here," he says proudly. Reports from the independents include everything from allegations of police brutality in towns far from Havana to economic and environmental analyses, political commentaries, impressionistic essays -- anything outside the rigid ideological confines of the official press.

Lopez cites an example of the Cuban media's tendency to slavishly disseminate the official line. As Hurricane Lili approached the island last month, a television news crew broadcast a segment showing Castro listening to a meteorologist predict the hurricane's path. "At the end of the forecast, the reporter turned to Castro and asked, 'Is it okay to air this?'" Lopez repeats in amazement. "I don't consider them journalists, I consider them government spokespeople."

Since the April raid, the bureau's newsroom has become something akin to a state of mind, continuously resurrected from materials at hand. On this bright, hot Saturday in October, the headquarters exist in the home of Lazaro Lazo, who acts as director of the bureau. Lazo and Lopez have commandeered the tiny front room, which serves as the Lazo family's living room, dining room, recreation room, and parlor. Lazo's diploma in Spanish literature from the University of Havana hangs on the wall, a reminder of his former status as a privileged intellectual.

Long ago he was an editor at a government publishing house that turned out novels, short stories, and books about Cuban art. Then in 1981 he wrote a series of short stories and essays about bureaucratic snafus, shortages in consumer goods, and the hardship faced by country people who had emigrated to the capital. Some of the pieces were published in a Costa Rican newspaper.

Lazo was arrested and charged with enemy propaganda and contempt -- the latter charge reserved for those accused of making fun of Fidel Castro or other public officials. He was convicted and shipped off to prison for three and a half years. During that time, he spent 42 days in solitary confinement, composing parodies of popular songs and singing them aloud to keep his sanity. He also spent eighteen days in a so-called punishment cell, crouched over the infamous "Turkish chair," a stinking waste receptacle that took up most of the narrow cell floor. There was no bed, so Lazaro leaned against the iron cell door to sleep. "The stench was overwhelming," he remembers, "but at least the door was cool."

The thought of being sent back to prison unnerves him, and he admits that he would leave the country if he could. "But we find ourselves in a jam," he says, speaking not only for himself but for other independent journalists who have been told to pack their bags. "How can we emigrate? Even if we were offered political asylum, we don't have the money to buy a ticket. We're caught in a paradox. I can't leave and I can't stay. So we keep doing the same thing day after day. We're like crazy people who are told not to take another step -- and yet we keep on walking."

Lazo disappears for a moment into the back room where he, his wife, and two children sleep. The room is crammed with beds and little else. A makeshift curtain separates the sleeping area from a cranny containing the toilet and improvised shower.

He returns with a loose bundle of papers. These are the dispatches the bureau has recently prepared for broadcast. Much of this week's news deals with the island's recovery from Hurricane Lili. Reporters have stitched together their own observations with statistics that appeared in the official press, along with interviews with Catholic relief officials.

Bureau reporters worked full-time to gather this information, yet they receive nothing for their labor. The commercial Miami radio stations do not pay. Lazo says bureau members survive primarily on contributions from foreign organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, which sends $1100 each month to the five main independent news agencies on the island. Lazo distributes the bureau's share (about $200) equally among its members.

The monthly fifteen dollars or so per person is used for supplies -- pens and paper -- and for food. It is rarely sufficient. On this day, for example, Lazo and his family had a breakfast of sugar and water. Yesterday all he had to eat was two bananas. He opens his empty refrigerator and shrugs. "Our biggest problem is the lack of economic resources," he notes earnestly, oblivious to the understatement.

"These are groups that work against the revolution and that work as the instruments of those from the United States who are trying to return our country to a past of oppression."

-- Cuban official referring to the independent news agencies during the opening session of a conference called "Community Press in Today's World: Alternative Grass Roots Proposals," October 21, 1996

More than 100 foreign journalists have gathered in the auditorium of a polytechnic institute just outside Havana and are listening to government officials lay down the party line regarding the independent press. The visiting journalists represent scrappy, upstart news organizations from Argentina, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Canada, and the United States. They give voice to those who oppose government policy, or those whose opinions are drowned out by corporate media. Ironically, they and Cuba's independent journalists share similar aspirations: Each seeks to break the information monopoly maintained by the powers that control their societies.

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