Notes from the Underground

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

Rivero denies that he or other members of CubaPress are political dissidents. Their role is that of impartial observers, he explains. The agency reports on dissident activities because they are part of the island's daily panorama of events and because they are an integral part of Cuban life that is ignored by the official media. As for being a counterrevolutionary, he says, "Nobody in his right mind is going to propose that we overthrow this government. This government has weapons. It has the most powerful army in Latin America. Anyone who proposes a violent overthrow is an imbecile."

He is equally emphatic in downplaying CubaPress's links to Miami and its sordid history as a launching pad for countless acts of sabotage, armed raids, and attempts to destabilize the Cuban government by spreading rumor (and sometimes fact) about attempted attacks on Castro. "This is not a den of conspirators; this is a news agency," Rivero insists. "Who is most interested in news about Cuba? Cubans. So where do we turn? To Miami. I'm not going to call Switzerland."

Rivero shuffles to a bedroom at the rear of the apartment. This is the command center of CubaPress: a single bed, one small bookshelf, an antiquated typewriter, and a box full of manila folders -- the CubaPress archive. "I am not hiding anything," he declares. "Everyone knows my address. The information we provide is not secret." As far as Rivero is concerned, CubaPress reporters technically are not breaking Cuban law. "Publishing a samizdat [an underground newsletter] is considered enemy propaganda, and they send you directly to prison," he says. "But they haven't come up with a legal statute penalizing telephone calls."

The Cuban government does, however, prohibit unauthorized private employment. In 1993, as a result of the economic crisis, more than 160 self-employment opportunities were legalized, but journalism was not among them. Furthermore, the country's constitution specifies that all media will be owned by the state. And the penal code provides that anyone belonging to an unregistered organization can be imprisoned for one to three months. Rivero hoped to avoid that penalty by attempting to register CubaPress soon after the agency was formed. He holds up the original application from October 3, 1995. "We still haven't gotten an answer," he notes wryly. But they have elicited an official response of a different sort.

Members of CubaPress, along with individuals at other independent press agencies, repeatedly have been detained. (Rivero himself has been held twice in the past year.) Guided by an interpretation of the law that differs from Rivero's, authorities have threatened to charge the journalists with an array of crimes ranging from "contempt" to "rebellion," "resistance," "dangerousness," "illegal association," "enemy propaganda," and "spreading false news that threatens international peace." Journalists' phone service is frequently cut off. State security agents have interrupted calls to Miami radio stations and have on occasion themselves argued with the broadcasters on the air.

Even associating with independent journalists can be risky. Recently a reporter from Miami's El Nuevo Herald who dropped by Rivero's apartment was subsequently detained and then expelled from the country. Suzanne Bilello, an official with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, was arrested June 19 after spending several days in Havana meeting with Rivero and other independent journalists. She was interrogated for three hours; her notebooks, address book, personal papers, and film were confiscated and she was required to leave Cuba the next day. A month later a journalist working for Reporters Without Borders was denied entry into the country and put on the next plane back to Paris.

A foreign ministry official recently explained that the Cuban government made an example of the El Nuevo Herald reporter in order to send a message to Miami-based journalists: If they are discovered practicing journalism without the appropriate visa, they will be sent home. In addition, he complained that the Miami Herald had antagonized the government by "supporting" the independent journalists. He also noted that Herald publisher David Lawrence is a past president of the IAPA, which this year honored the independent Cuban press.

Maria Garcia, Herald foreign editor, points out that there is nothing nefarious about providing moral support to the cause of independent journalism. "We support freedom of the press anywhere in the hemisphere," she says. The Herald, which has not been granted a visa to report in Cuba since the beginning of the year, has written stories about the island's independent journalists and occasionally uses them as sources. In contrast, El Nuevo Herald regularly publishes their dispatches.

Alberto IbargYen, publisher of El Nuevo, says his newspaper sometimes provides the Cuban journalists a token payment. "But most frequently the pieces are volunteered," he adds. The independent journalists, however, praise El Nuevo as one of the few foreign media organizations regularly willing to pay them for their work.

The independent journalists say that on principle they do not accept payment from Radio Marti because it is funded by the U.S. government. They would, however, be happy to be compensated by Miami's commercial radio stations. "Of course they want to be paid," says Nancy Perez-Crespo, owner of a Miami publishing house who also acts as CubaPress's foreign representative. "They have to receive money to make a living."

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