Notes from the Underground

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

But any exploration of common ground is deftly thwarted by the conference's Cuban hosts, among them officials from the Union of Cuban Journalists, the Jose Marti International Institute of Journalism, and incongruously, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, neighborhood groups whose original function was to enforce a form of ideological purity, to keep an eye out for neighborhood malcontents who might be tempted to organize against the government.

Members of the Union of Cuban Journalists address the gathering. The so-called independent news agencies are hotbeds of counterrevolution funded by the U.S. government, they assert. "Many of these people are not even journalists," sneers union official Juan Marrero. "They don't even know how to speak Spanish, their own language. They are paid to report...and they will say whatever they want to get this money. In the end, all these people insult the profession of journalism." Marrero belittles the prize awarded by the Inter American Press Association, calling the organization "an instrument of transnational corporations, of imperialistic monopolies who seek to defend their penetration in the continent.... The IAPA has attacked trade unions ... it has booed the emergence of radio stations in the continent, and now they are defending the independent journalists in Cuba."

Marrero and another official outline the rationale behind their dismissal of the independent journalists: They are not professionals, they are insignificant in number, they are seeking a visa to emigrate, and they have sold out to the enemies of the revolution. They are dissidents, not journalists. They are interested in politics, not news.

As the independent journalists themselves have not been invited to attend the conference, no one mounts an argument in their defense and the audience does not pursue the topic. The Cuban government rests its case.

"Cubans on the island have received scant information about the aid sent from Miami to the victims of Hurricane Lili. As of this moment not a single article about the aid has been published in the national press. Out of 50 people surveyed -- 27 from Havana and 23 from other parts of the country -- only 9 knew details about the aid, because they had heard the news on Radio Marti. Eleven had heard rumors of the aid from neighbors or friends who had listened to Radio Marti. The other 30 people learned about the aid from CubaPress."

-- CubaPress report

Raul Rivero, president of the news agency CubaPress, leans back in his rocking chair as he reads aloud the hurricane-aid dispatch, prepared by one of his reporters. Since forming the agency in September 1995, he has striven to boost their level of professionalism. This report meets with his approval, and he murmurs in satisfaction, smoke from his ever-present cigarette drifting over his words.

From his apartment in central Havana, Rivero directs a handful of local reporters and a dozen or so correspondents elsewhere around the island. Like other groups, CubaPress provides radio news reports and commentary, as well as longer articles for print media. Agency reporters used to gather regularly to transmit from Rivero's home phone, but Cuban state security began interrupting the line, so now everyone makes separate arrangements.

It is difficult to imagine Rivero's empty apartment as the site of a frenetic newsroom. Paint flakes from the walls. The living room is barren except for some rocking chairs, a table, and a refrigerator. After quitting his job with the official press in 1989, Rivero sold his possessions to pay for necessities. He refers to the agency as "an abstraction," despite the hundreds of dispatches he has distributed in the last year.

An acclaimed poet and former influential cultural official at the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, the 50-year-old Rivero worked for Cuban newspapers and magazines for nearly 30 years, including a stint as Moscow correspondent for the national wire service, Prensa Latina. His was the first class of university students to receive a degree in journalism from the revolutionary government.

Short, heavyset, and pugnacious, he is happy to respond to the government's criticisms of the emerging independent press. But first there is news to report: A human-rights activist in CamagYey, a province in the eastern part of the island where Rivero was born, was arrested for possessing a video copy of the August 23 debate between Miami exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa and Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban national assembly. The debate, which was televised throughout Latin America, has not been aired in Cuba, nor has the Cuban government informed its citizens of the unprecedented event. According to the information Rivero has received, the activist was jailed for subversion. "How can that be subversive?" he wants to know. "A debate between the president of the national assembly and an opponent that has already been broadcast before thousands of people around the world!"

This is an example, Rivero fumes, of how the Cuban government and its accomplices in the official Cuban media have been lying to the country for 37 years. His goal in creating CubaPress was to help the Cuban people see their nation clearly: "If there was a free press circulating in this country, if large segments of the population had access to the truth about what was happening, this whole process [of economic and political change] would happen much faster."

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